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The New Groves of Academe

Researching the ways in which new media and digital technologies are positioned in modern universities means reading about the changing models of governance, management and administration that shape how research and teaching are conducted. This proves very revealing in unexpected ways and—appropriate to my focus on discipline characteristics—there are clear differences in work from different fields. In the Humanities, and to a lesser extent, the Social Sciences, authors (even when offering some critique) discuss the ‘essence’ of digital media, often imbuing them with a quasi-magical quality. In these largely techno-determinist narratives, new media and digital technologies directly enact a “paradigm shift” that is inevitable because they innately (so it appears) alter our social relations, and relations of space-time. In fact, these technologies are agents or instruments of a shift with origins located elsewhere. Authors writing about what might be called ‘digitalism’ and science tend to be more prosaic. They acknowledge quite coolly that the increasing dominance of digital technologies on campus and in research ‘workflows’ is directly linked to the priorities of the market economy. This is obvious when we think about the emphasis on “innovation” (developing commodifiable products of interest to commercial private sector companies, who may in turn outsource their R&D activities) and on training students to adopt this same mind-set while charging them ever-increasing fees. University infrastructure becomes the final service-platform of a top-down government agenda. This agenda is reinforced by managers and normalised (through various means) in the minds of those working at lower levels—i.e. research and teaching staff.

Clearly digital technologies offer many exciting opportunities, regardless of debates on their nature. They are fascinating to explore, which is why I have chosen them as my topic of research. But we must remain aware of the wider systems which they are a part of, and this is why I am interested to consider them in relation to the academic “habitus”. Krull (2000) reminds us that nowadays, most Western governments view the funding of Higher Education as a “strategic investment” and that with limited finances available to support that investment, a focus on “public-private partnerships” and inter-disciplinarity are the logical outcomes of current political logic, focused as it is on “knowledge economies”1 . At the same time, “market populism” and “consumer democracy” have become “ideological lodestones against which all new policies [in the public sector] must be evaluated”, as Deem, Hillyard and Reed (2007) explain. The formation and dominance of neo-liberal New Managerialism (NM) and New Public Management (NPM) theories are part of a “cultural revolution” with a series of inter-linked effects upon “the discursive strategies, organizational forms and control technologies”  embedded within and used to legitimate public services. Networks, personalisation and customisation are among the concepts it privileges. Universities are “by no means exempt from these underlying structural pressures and the ideological momentum that they generate”, having become more like “workplaces” than “communities of scholars”. The restructuring inspired by NM and NPM have significant and long-term consequences for academic communities. I would argue, uncontroversially (?), that the promotion of digital media is one of those consequences.

This leads me to some more general thoughts about academia which are only loosely relevant to my work but which are certainly relevant to my status as a junior member of the academic community. Whether the changing management models mentioned above are good or bad is dependent on the position of the observer. Specifically, in relation to what the observer and his/her community have to gain or lose. Naturally, it can be hard to criticise a system on which you rely for employment, especially when the changes you are critical of seem utterly inevitable and “just the way things are now”. It is hard to know what the effects of changing technologies will be. It is easier for a journalist or other commentator to descry what is happening to HE (for instance, the current funding cuts) than it is for a low-grade academic on a temporary contract or in a department facing an uncertain future. Clearly, if attitudes based on a combination of fear and the desire for self-preservation (if not whole-hearted subscription to the new ideals) become endemic, there are likely to be depressing consequences. I’m sure we can all imagine those. The nightmare scenario is a group of ‘yes men’ and women unquestioningly serving highly paid superiors who do not necessarily possess or appreciate the core intellectual and social values of the average academic. Rather than scholars choosing the methods and tools that best fit a particular course, or project, they will be enforced. More positively, it may be possible for those in all fields of enquiry to adapt to the new market-centred regime without totally compromising. Despite inevitable concessions, traditional values and ideals might quietly be defended and promoted from within. This enterprise is a difficult one—a little like brokering for peace when outside the negotiating room there are bodies and ‘collateral damage’.

1Krull, W. (2010). Beyond the Ivory Tower: Some Observations on External Funding of Interdisciplinary Research in Universities. In Nico Stehr and Peter Weingart eds. Practising Intderdisciplinarity. University of Toronto Press, pp.260-270.
2Deem, R., Hillyard S., and Reed, M. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford University Press, pp.4-6; page 26.
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Citizen Journalism

Today I gave a guest lecture through at Liverpool John Moores University on ‘Citizen Journalism’ – an extremely fascinating and more or less recent phenomenon that can be linked to the rise of mobile/digital technologies, the internet, and multimedia content, as well as to disillusionment with, or disengagement from the ‘traditional’ press. Even if you’re not familiar with theories or debates around Citizen Journalism, you’ve doubtless seen countless examples of it in practise already; including the most mainstream news broadcasters and online publishers. Citizen Journalism is, in essence, unprofessional journalism, conducted by ‘ordinary’ members of the public. Naturally there is a lot to debate about what the potentials of Citizen Journalism are, how it contrasts with or complements professional journalism, and how it might develop in future. What insights can we gain if we analyse it in terms of style, content, politics, economics? I’m making my slides available here so please feel free to download them and let me know what your own views are. The embedded version below might have a few formatting glitches – apologies! Click the options button for notes.



Many thanks to Dr Iqbal Akthar and his lovely students for their input and enthusiasm, and for making me feel extremely welcome. Despite the cold and the rain, it was really nice to be in Liverpool again. 🙂

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

Going to the theatre is a special event for me, so two trips in as many weeks is a definite rarity – not least because I see so many movies that it can be easy to forget about the altogether different joys and techniques of live stage performance. Last weekend I was through at the Lowry in Salford for a production of Willy Russell’s 80s classic Educating Rita, while last night’s performance of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (this time at the Manchester Opera House) couldn’t have been more different. The first, I was familiar with, having seen the Julie Walters/Michael Caine film adaptation; the second, I know mainly by reputation and due to the devoted cult following it attracts among its fans. But while Douglas Adams was clearly an extremely smart guy, making wry and intelligent points about physics, metaphysics and humanity, Hitchhiker’s tongue remains firmly in its cheek, being in essence a ludicrous and comical affair. Educating Rita, although often extremely witty, presents us with a more problematic and clearly political seam of social critique. I’m not going to review the performances or the productions here.1 Instead, I want to muse a little on some of the issues around class, education, and stereotype that these two shows (primarily Russell’s) stirred up in my mind.

Rita changes drastically throughout the course of the play, enrolling in an Open University course that leads to weekly tuition sessions with grumpy but likeable English literature lecturer Frank. The play being much inspired by Pygmalion, she undergoes a transformation comparable to that of George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle. Beginning as a frustrated and rather lonely – but undeniably smart, determined and insightful – professional hairdresser, Rita is defined (or actually, self-defined) as the product of working class conventions that don’t chime with her true personality or her aspirations. Learning about herself and the middle-classes along with the disciplined conventions of literary analysis, she becomes a knowledgable, popular and semi-bohemian University graduate, dressing differently, thinking more clearly and leaving behind hairdressing, pub sing-a-longs, a book-burning ex-husband, and “talking about irrelevant rubbish”. Frank meanwhile is sent on sabbatical to Australia, not having given up drinking, but having been dumped by his girlfriend. Whether he will return to writing poetry remains ambiguous, as indeed, does Rita’s own future, but both are aware of new possibilities.

The Hitchhiker's Guide Radio Show

The Hitchhiker’s Guide Radio Show

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

In many ways, Rita’s story resonates as much now as it did in the 1980s, although undeniably the contexts and conditions of the working class, women, the higher education system, and notions of social “betterment” are a little bit different now than they were under Margaret Thatcher.2 As we cheer Rita along on her journey of discovery and smile at the lessons she seems to teach the equally frustrated but far less determined Frank, it’s worth wondering whether Rita would nowadays be able to save enough of her wages to cope with even the less-than-average tuition fees of the OU. We might also wonder about the extent to which Frank’s already shaky position in academia would be valued at all in 2013, given the ‘ivory tower’ quality of his knowledge and his lack of enthusiasm for most of his students. Alcoholism aside, would Frank’s influence on Rita count as “impact” given that it merely enriches her sense of self and possibly her earning potential, rather than the budget of the institution? What would her gratitude, and his, count for?

Of course, the whole play revolves around an examination of class stereotypes, at the same time as we can detect them in it. Undeniably, Rita achieves what she sets out to. For her, the intellectual opportunities offered by access to a previously more exclusive education system, are a liberation. Yet while she is hardly a stock agitprop-style ‘everywoman’, and although Russell gives her a personality and subjectivity all of her own that makes the audience actively like her, it’s hard to deny that there are elements of cliché about both her and the working class world she describes. Back home, it seems, she is the only person in existence who values learning, education, or going against the grain. Unless she settles for marriage and motherhood, literally no-one will support her. Further, she believes that Frank’s suggestion of a “working class culture” is just a risible middle class invention. Of course, she may paint in broad, harsh strokes through anger; her stance seems to soften by the end as she realises that not all is as she once imagined in the University environment. But isn’t it worth being cautious of her conviction that she must leave one group so fully behind in order to embrace the ‘best’ aspects of another? Equally, it doesn’t seem certain that Frank was ‘born to’ his position. He is not really Henry Higgins.

Having gone back to school at a time when there was barely such a thing as a ‘Mature student’ and after a period working as – you’ve guessed it – a hairdresser – Russell himself effectively was Rita; or a male version of her. He was no doubt aware of the potential issues with his ‘girl-done-good’ narrative and probably they are deliberate; still, I’d say they are not the most obvious so they’re worth flagging up. Do Rita and Russell, to some extent, unintentionally parody and patronise working class ambition? For me, slightly, yes. Watching Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its geeky sub-textual jokes about the cosmos, relativity, and the perfect cup of tea, we also find stereotypes being played with. But these are of a different sort – cheeky, apolitical and uninterrogated. What else would an Englishman do in space after all, but worry about his tea? Nonetheless, Hitchhiker’s humour works on multiple registers and, presented as a colourful multimedia “adventure” in this production, there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Here, I thought about the very different types of experience and knowledge that must have influenced the works of Adams, educated at a paid-for prep-school before he went on to Cambridge; the very kind of trajectory in fact, that Rita initially envies. As Willy Russell explained in an interview with Jim Mulligan:

Both my parents were passionately opposed to mob culture or mob thought. They could never stand unquestioning groups of people and I was brought up to see both sides of the question.

In a British culture too often obsessed with the supposed as well as the real divisions between those who come from different “classes”, and in which those are used negatively, that resistance is what we should remember.

1All I’ll say about that here is that Gillian Kearney was absolutely captivating and spot on as Rita, while Shappi Khorsandi, who clearly hadn’t bothered to rehearse her script, spoiled the combined efforts of an otherwise great cast at Hitchhiker’s.
2I’ll let others debate just how different and to what effect!

Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.

Internet of Things

“Things” is probably one of the least specific terms you will ever hear in the context of sophisticated cutting-edge computing technologies, which probably makes the concept “Internet of Things” more memorable. Furthermore, it was coined (doubtless during some kind of blue-sky brainstorming session) by a man Wikipedia call “a British technology pioneer”, Birmingham born Kevin Ashton. If you’ve not heard of the Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that he helped to standardise and promote, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a part of your everyday environment. In fact, that might just mean it’s on its way to becoming discreetly ubiquitous. If you’ve come across those funny little micro-chipped stickers with the concentric squares when checking your books out of the library – or just used them to accidentally set off security alarms – then you’re using RFID.

As for the Internet of Things, much of which revolves around RFID, it’s pretty “futuristic” and something which I got to learn a lot more about at the PhD Summer School I attended back in August. Yesterday, I submitted a summary of what I learned on the course and (bearing in mind I am no expert) I thought it would be interesting to share with you this section on “The Internet of Things” – not least because it is already on its way and is an excellent demonstration of how technology can both solve and create problems for society in ways that have far-reaching implications.

Source: The Evolution of the Internet of Things, Casaleggio Associati (2011)

Heavily promoted and invested in by the European Union, the Internet of Things (IoT) is defined by Technopedia as:

A computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and will be able to identify themselves to other devices. The term is closely identified with RFID as the method of communication, although it could also include other sensor technologies, other wireless technologies, QR codes, etc.

To give some examples of use, there are clearly benefits in terms of commercial supply chains and logistics; stock from a warehouse or the fuel consumption of delivery drivers en route can be more effectively tracked and monitored using RFID chips and broadcast networks. In the home, a consumer might be alerted by their fridge, via their mobile phone, that they need to remember bacon. Every object, addressable via internet protocols, would have a unique identity and an active online profile, developing what seems to some people a “personality”. It might be perfectly possible for your guitar to find other musicians in your area with the same taste in music as you or the shop that sells its type of strings. On the streets of a city, the lighting might automatically dim to save resources when sensors detect that there is nobody nearby requiring illumination or, in a combination of art, engineering and science, change colour depending on the measured physiological responses or the stated (online) preferences of a pedestrian.

For this, a complex architecture is required to support a global network of programmable and addressable “smart” devices (both physical and virtual) capable of being part of the IoT. These devices would be context aware, with embedded sensors, processors, tracking, monitoring, and (possibly) visualisation capabilities; they would capture and store commercial and/or personal data and respond in ways both pre-programmed and calculated in ways apparently intuitive to serve a user’s need or supposed need. This might involve “thing” to person (t2p), machine-to-machine (m2m) or “thing” to machine (t2m) communication paths. Such interactions extend the kinds of data exchange already taking place between objects, systems and intelligent devices like “smartphones”, the hardware and operating systems of which having in many ways suggested or laid the frame for the development of the IoT. Much of what is needed for it has already been or is currently being developed in R&D or manufacturing sites around the world.

Julie Christie’s home was full of intelligent devices in Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed…

Of course there are a plethora of potential economic and social benefits associated with the implementation of the IoT, particularly in the area of health care or for improved energy efficiency and waste management. But it’s vital also to have debates here about technological determinism and the tendency by technologists to narrativise – in a linear “step-wise” fashion – supposed “inevitable” progressions of innovation and societal advance. The move from fragmented network technologies to cloud computing certainly appears compellingly logical; but we must not forget that ultimately, we decide the ends to which technologies are put and the values placed upon them. Having the rather “Science Fiction” style IoT vision become reality is not unproblematic. Issues include privacy, security, a lack of demonstrable benefit beyond industrial efficiency, and possibly low consumer acceptance in civil society. RFID chips are thought by some to be “spychips”, the processes and implications of which will be mysterious to most consumers who will not know exactly what data is being gathered about them or who it is being accessed by.

More prosaically, there are technical and functional issues that need addressed such as “data flooding” – when much of the data gathered and subsequently read from an RFID tag is not useful or meaningful to the organisation or individual accessing it. Further, there are the usual problems of a lack of standardisation of formats, frequencies and communication protocols to allow the interoperability required for a global Internet of Things. Connecting smart devices, software and systems in the cloud will of course require new and flexible business models and the identification/creation and capture of new business opportunities and markets within sustainable economic sectors. Whatever your perspective, new skills, new attitudes, and a fundamentally different philosophy will be required of us if the IoT is to be safe, successful, and opt-outable of.

Tales of Two Cities

En route to see the new Batman movie, myself and a friend took a slightly circuitous route as part of an effort to remind ourselves that yes, there is an amazing city out there beyond our cosy home in Chorlton – even if it’s not quite so darkly evocative as Gotham. 😉 We stopped to admire some of the old mills, factories and locks between and around Oxford Road and Deansgate, which have mostly now been (or are being) repurposed to become galleries, studios, commercial spaces and flats as part of a continuing redevelopment plan. Visually retaining a sense of social history amidst patchwork modernity, many of the exteriors are as yet unchanged – spiky green weeds protrude from chipped and broken windowpanes amidst beautiful red brickwork covered in flyposters and colourful grafittied chipboard. The names of defunct-factories imprint themselves in giant letters on the area’s memory while underneath, delicate gold might signify the entrance to private apartments and graphic design firms; secure entry only. Even the most compelling of visions can’t escape the contrasts and contexts of transition.

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As for The Dark Knight Rises. Well, aesthetically speaking, Christopher Nolan and his crew have created a predictably excellent atmosphere of electrifying gloom. Performances alternate between strong and muted, keeping us generally interested in a twisting and turning narrative full of politics and references to previous film The Dark Knight. J.G. Levitt as new character John Blake is particularly memorable although I’m not sure Marion Cotillard’s Miranda really works (or shocks) as intended. Now and then, everything threatens to become laborious, almost collapsing (appropriately enough) under a crushingly heavy but unevenly balanced symbolic critique that plays out over nearly 3 hours.

The Batman movies always (and increasingly with Nolan) combine socio-political metanarratives and allegories with moments of kitschly sexy cartoonishness. Here, I think that combination goes wrong, forced towards a conclusion that might be heroic or might be ambivalent and contradictory. Being asked to consider economic injustice; 9/11 and the War on Terror; the trade-off between nuclear weapons and environmental responsibility; the culpability of the stock exchange in financial disaster, AND the effects of torture, false prophecy and violent revolution is a lot for any mainstream movie. Doing so at the same time as we follow the gymnastics, jewel-thieving and repartee of Anne Hathaway’s well-played but confused Catwoman is just a little bit too much. Certainly nothing comes close to the perfectly pitched genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker. All that aside, it’s definitely worth seeing!

Pure Dead Brilliant?

Naturally enough, the landscape between here and Glasgow changes gradually, well signposted by the mountains of the Lake District and the changing shapes of the hills. Still, even through a train window, it always seems to become unmistakably and “all-of-a-sudden” Scottish. The air, the water, the atmosphere. Even blindfolded, you’d somehow know you were back home. Nevermind the majestic scenery or the mists drifting over the Campsies; the proof of a Scottish banknote will really raise a smile on the face of an ex-pat. Well, everyone has a bit of Romanticism for their homeland, right? 😉 For me, living somewhere that’s really only subtly different as opposed to entirely “alien” is an illuminating process. Being Scottish in England right now also means being asked about my views on Independence. Again, it’s hard to resist the lure of Patriotism in favour of a more nuanced perspective; but certainly nobody is claiming that “breaking away from the Union” would be easy. Undoubtedly it would take a few years for the dust to settle and for new laws, new rules, new modes of interaction, to be properly defined and managed. The question is: is it worth it?

Ready for a departure. Just like Scotland?

Well, it really all depends on your definition of worth, doesn’t it? Despite a well-argued case from the profit-driven and big business-seeking sectors on the perils of “divorce”, I do think it would be worthwhile seeing how Scotland would redefine, reposition and strengthen itself as a Sovereign State. That would never mean abandoning ties with the rest of the UK, or turning away from Internationalism and Globalisation. Quite the contrary. What Independence would do would be provide the Scottish electorate with a chance to more strongly assert and enact their core and long-held principles of social justice, equality, and public service, over and above those currently emanating from Westminster – not just “at home” but also abroad; not least when it comes to matters of War, Defense, and “deterrants“. Well, maybe. Independent or not, it all still very much depends – on the EU, on our electoral system, and on how much trust we put in the political class in general – whether that of Scotland, England, or any other country with which we do “business”. And let’s not even get started on the difference between DevoPlus and DevoMax! But as it stands, I’m not going to get a say in it anyway. 😦

It was nice to get back and find the sun shining brightly on Manchester. Worth remembering that many people down here would envy us (sorry – “the Scottish voters”) our chance to break away from the coalition…