Rethinking “Edtech”

I was asked to offer some perspective on the wider idea of edtech – what follows covers investment management, theories of learning, education reform politics, innovation theory and around 80 years of history. Some may be surprised at the scope – I would argue that it is not enough to understand how, to truly make an intelligent decision we need to at least consider why.

I should note that I was asked to give a personal and idiosyncratic view, so just to be absolutely clear these are my own opinions only. 

As an investment category, defined perhaps by the breathless coverage of EdSurge and TechCrunch, EdTech is old news. The last boom years, such as they were, largely sit between 2012 and 2015, with the latter year seeing $18bn of investment attracted into the sector. Those with longer memories may recall a similar bear market at the turn of the century, aligned to the wider “dot com” boom. (and fans of TechCrunch may be interested to learn of the FinTech boom that immediately followed it)

The boundaries of the category are variously drawn, but generally encompass teaching and administrative adoption of technology and infrastructure. There is a smaller, but separate, market segment encompassing research technology with links to commercial R&D, cloud storage and big data analytics and metrics (which you could trace back, if you wanted, to ISI). Academic research infrastructure and support in itself is too small a market to consider separately for most mainstream investors – and is primarily supported by government funding.

Investors of the sort that cover EdTech are operating with a high appetite for risk, and will expect a low number of their investments to offer significant returns. This plays into the fail-fast ethos in wider Silicon Valley, but tends to favour vivid ideas rather than well-considered interventions, and incremental innovation rather than revolutionary ideas (which would have a longer-term return). Very few “EdTechs” are actually making a return on their investments, a scant few (online course provider Udacity, for instance) are even turning a working profit. The model for funders is to grow mindshare and a user base, before being acquired by a larger tech company (Google, Microsoft, Blackboard…) – again, as in wider Silicon Valley.

As a historic project, your modern edtech (in the sense of mechanical or digital aids to the process of education) sits very much on a line drawing from a behaviourist (Skinnerian) model of learning. Drawing on ideas of repetition and reward, it underpins drill-and-kill learning tools such as Duolingo, and many test preparation or content delivery packages.

A later strand drawing on constructivist and social constructivist theories of learning (Durkheim, Illich, Papert through perhaps to someone like George Siemens) emphasised the agency of the learner to make sense of the world around them, drawing on networks of peers. The rise of social media around 2008 spurred the development of “connectivism”, a postulated theory concerning the way networks comprising human and non-human members interact, grow and learn (rhizomatically).

Cognitive learning theories (Piaget, also Badderly, Chomsky) are the basis of the “personalisation” agenda wherein technology can “adapt” within bounded states to suit individual learner needs – much of what is described as “AI” in learning, and indeed many of the models of learning that define AI research – are cognitivist.

And outside of learning theories all together, you have the same drives around efficient management of information that define the wider tech-boom. Administrative technology also has the advantage that the burden of proof is seldom asked for – access to information is an axiomic good.

You could connect these trends together to explain something like the MOOC, which started with an explicitly connectivist underpinning but pivoted quickly (with the pressure of growth and massification) to a behaviourist model, though with a cognitive science gloss via the collection and use of administrative user data.

But why would you? Simply put, these ideas underpin the majority of edtech development. Despite the neo-mania of EdTech as narrative (as Audrey Watters notes “the best way to predict the future is to write a press release”, and I would agree), it is a surprisingly conservative field in terms of approach, although an army of silicon valley patent lawyers would love to convince you otherwise.

Part of the leverage that the field has on education policy makers comes from the wider narrative of Education Reform. Joining parents and educators with genuine concerns about the quality of education with investors and politicians looking to improve the profitability of education, this narrative – which I love to characterise as “Education is broken” – underpins many of the machinery of education (Charter school, free school, challenger institutions…) changes that open up education to “disruptive innovation”.

Harvard Business Administration researcher Clayton Christensen first postulated that idea of disruption, and he applied it to education in his 2008 book ‘Disrupting Class‘. Simply put, the concept of low-end disruptive innovation suggests that any established market can be destabilised by the entry of a new actor offering a similar but inferior product at a vastly lower price. This new actor initially serves a niche interest and does not provide the features of premium products in the marketplace but through repeated innovation it expands and improves to serve wider needs and increases profitability.

However, this theory has been debunked specifically within education (by none less than Christiansen himself in 2013), and more generally as a fundamental narrative of innovation (Jill Lapore in 2014 is flat-out superb). As attractive as the idea of low cost innovation may be to investors, it has not and does not explain innovation as it actually happens.

Entrepreneurial state theory – as described by Mariana Mazzucato in her book of the same name, sees a role for the long term, stable nature of state funding in supporting and developing innovation. An example would be the support in defence spending for early cybernetics projects that became VR, networked communication, responsive software (and also pigeon-guided bombs – courtesy of one BF Skinner… but not every experiment is a success…) and underpin much of what became Edtech.

There are people better qualified than me to talk about theories of innovation, but I will content myself to mentioning Von Hippell’s lead user theory – broadly watching the working practices of expert practitioners, identifying where existing processes or technologies are shortcutted, then working with practitioners to design tools to simplify these short-cuts.

So what is “an EdTech”? Despite overweening claims around innovation, the easiest way is to characterise their intended mechanism. An EdTech uses one or more of the three educational theories above (either knowingly or, more commonly, implicitly) to either sell into existing education providers, or to attempt to disrupt these providers by establishing alternate providers and selling to learners. As hype around the central category has grown, more generally applicable administrative interventions have been branded as edtech.

Actual sales (in terms of money being exchanged for goods or services) are rare, as the focus is on growing a user-base and associated hype in order to be acquired by a larger enterprise. (This is just mainstream Silicon Valley business practice).

But do “EdTechs” improve education? It is difficult to say. Certainly to read the press releases that have flooded the inboxes of education or technology journalists – very few cover both, so it has been possible to exploit gaps in knowledge (see Audrey Watters “What every techie should know about education“) – would indicate that we now live in a golden age of cheap, ubiquitous, personalised and effective learning.  And yet.

Certainly the things that do improve education as a wider are often far removed from the mythologised moment of learning – administrative system interoperability, open licensing for academic content – solving, in other words, known problems as reported by expert practitioners.

(Careful readers will note that I owe a huge debt to Audrey Watters, Phil Hill, Michael Feldstein, Rolin Moe and many others.)

An uncomfortable realisation

Politics and love are the only forms of constraint possible between free people

Sir Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics


We are the conservatives.

We agitate for the maintenance of the great lasting structures of government – for the rule of law and the authority of judges, for parliamentary procedure and the letter of statute, for the smooth reassuring functionality of legislative and constitutional bodies long since atrophied through disuse. We call for rational military collaboration, streamlined and open international trade, the unimpeded free movement of people. For the slow iterative progress of science and philosophy.

We support free speech, but within sensible limits. We support free expression, but balance this against a right not to be offended. We uphold the democratic will of the public, but measure it against the sage counsel of the technocrats and the learned.

We do this, because the world is in the throes – at last! – of popular revolution led ostensibly by the workers but fermented by a new breed of public intellectual. And we – the revolutionary left – find ourselves on the side of the establishment.

Sooner or later someone’s going to catch the imagination of these people with some new magic. At the bottom of it will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth—hell, dignity.

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

(with thanks to Helen Beetham)

Incomplete reading list – 2016

Because everyone is listing and capsule reviewing books that they’ve read, this is a few that stuck in the mind this year. Be warned, there are a lot, and the list is incomplete.

The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America – John J. Miller

Very short (kindle single) thing – just wanted to read more about the Strangites after researching a post about Mormons and leadership.

In Defence of Politics
Sir Bernard Crick

Recommendation via Helen Beetham. One of those plain, smart, books that makes you rethink your radical stances. Now I have the tools to defend the political mainstream, should I need to.

Player Piano
Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s first (I think) novel. Human dignity after automation, a surprisingly modern theme that bled well into the Trump/Brexit WTF themes of 2016.

What a Carve Up!
Jonathan Coe

Number 11
Jonathan Coe

Number 11 was the new Coe, and a purported sequel to What a Carve Up – which is the better book if you like your grotesque political satires.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Jon Ronson

Interesting, but kept hoping for him to draw parallels before the internet age (tabloid hits to courtly gossip) that he never did. Public shaming is one of civilisation’s great control mechanisms – dealing with it as a modern phenomenon is hardly scratching the surface. Also reminded me that I wanted to re-read “The Scarlet Letter”, which I have yet to.

Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?: Everything You Need to Know about Britain’s Divorce from Europe
Ian Dunt

Quite. A succinct, yet terrifying, summary. Emboldened me that brexit may not be a thing that actually happens.

A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations
Mencius Moldbug

A bunch of Moldbug (from *that* research). Still washing the stink out of my brain.

Everything Belongs to the Future
Laurie Penny

Slight. Ultimately disappointing – which was a shame as I loved her writing on the alt-right this year.

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right”
Jon Ronson

Another Kindle single – which I picked up because I felt sure that Ronson (or Theroux) must have interviewed Trump during the late 80s-90s “wilderness years”. They didn’t, but this was as close as I could find.

Literature Against Criticism: University English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict
Martin Paul Eve

I’d long suspected that literary studies (as mainstream subject of undergraduate study) would have an influence on literature. And Martin Eve got to the bottom it far better than I could. Following @CowEyePress on twitter alongside reading this was illustrative – and I’d love to introduce the pair somehow (if one of them wasn’t a partially fictional construct).

Clifford D. Simak

Cogdog recommendation. A post-human civilisation led by dogs. I loved it for the sense of hope. Looking back, an interesting parallel read to “Player Piano”.

Joseph Heller

Because 2016.

Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History
David Aaronovitch

Also because 2016. As conspiracies hit the mainstream I felt I owed it to myself to understand how they worked. It didn’t help,  but at least I know now.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Yuval Noah Harari

Loved this – dataism as a post-human religion and (at last!) a proper definition of liberal humanism. There’s not many futurists I enjoy (Bryan Alexander and Martin Hamilton as obvious exceptions if they read this!) but will look out for other Harari work. I need to pick back up his ideas on animals.

Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga Book 2)
Peter F. Hamilton

Every camping holiday needs a stomping great space-opera saga – this was nicely done.

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

Post-apocalyptic touring orchestra and chorus visits an airport community in the ruins of Canada. Some lovely, affecting, touches.

Warren Ellis

How can I resist a rest-home for burnt out futurists? Story was a bit meh, but the world-building was excellent.

Neal Stephenson

Story was a bit meh, but the world building was excellent (x1000). One of the things that made me want to read about Mormons in 2016, as another example of a fully documented creation mythos.

The Best of All Possible Worlds
Karen Lord

This one got mixed up with “Seveneves” in my head, and lost out to a better described multi-species human future.

The Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi0

Recommendation from (I think) Pat Lockley. Nicely realised near-future, with a great story. Another reminder that our future may be to be led by gangsters.

Stoner: A Novel
John Williams

Token campus novel – I think everyone read it this year. If you haven’t, you should.

Martin Paul Eve

I should admit that I’d read pretty much most things that Martin writes.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia
Peter Pomerantsev

Properly loved this. Russia is another key to understanding the modern world, and I keep going back to this collection of insights from Russian scripted reality television. I’ve a feeling Adam Curtis read this too.

Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson

Everyone kept referring to this. Another Neal Stephenson book – great world-building, meh storytelling.

Neptune’s Brood
Charles Stross

If you only read one post-human thriller about forensic accountancy and robot religion: make it this one.

The Nightmare Stacks: A Laundry Files novel
Charles Stross

The new one.

Just Say No: The Spectator On The 1975 Referendum
The Spectator

Because I wanted to understand Vote Leave from a historical perspective.

Adrian Barnes

Most people forget how to sleep. The collapse of civilisation ensues. In Canada. I guess I just love books set in Canada.

Richard Powers

The digressions about biological warfare were less interesting than the digressions about C20th classical composition. But the digressions about C20th classical composition were amazing.

Red Plenty
Francis Spufford

Series of short stories about soviet Russia and cybernetics. Again, stuff about Russia.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up
Jacob M. Appel

Kind of (on reflection) a companion piece to “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

Look Who’s Back
Timur Vermes

2016 was the year that Godwin’s law was repealed. This is a translation of the hugely successful German satire on the return of you-know-who.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
Joseph A. Schumpter

Austrian school LOLs.

Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media
Nick Davies

Was expecting great things from this, but didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know about the death of journalism.

The Trial
Franz Kafka

An insight into my own personal 2016.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
Philip Tetlock

A fair few books about prediction this year. None of them really matched up to Nate Silver – see below.

Shoeless Joe
W. P. Kinsella

The book that inspired “Field of Dreams”, which got stuck in my head early this year. It was an excellent read and I would recommend it.

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin
David Ritz

That rare beast – a biography by someone who loved their subject but was not blind to their flaws.

The Silo Effect: Why putting everything in its place isn’t such a bright idea
Gillian Tett

Read it. Didn’t help me understand why people worry about silos so much.

Frank Zappa: The Complete Guide to his Music
Ben Watson

Zappa The Hard Way
Andrew Greenaway

Somewhere in my head there is a post about Zappa’s 88 tour band and parallels to both Trump and contemporary academia. It’ll happen one day. This was source material (the Ben Watson should be “The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play”, but no-one should read this more than once…)

Broken Vows: Tony Blair The Tragedy of Power
Tom Bower

Can’t remember why I read this – probably looking for more stuff about Michael Barber. Wasn’t any.

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction
Nate Silver

Two more books about prediction – both of which I would want to go back to. Taleb’s authorial voice annoys me –  couldn’t get through “Black Swan” for instance – but this was readable.

Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order
Paul Vigna

Bitcoin: The Future of Money?
Dominic Frisby

Because this year we all learned about Blockchain. Either of these would have done admirably.

The Origins of Higher Learning: knowledge networks and the early development of universities
Roy Lowe, Yoshihito Yasuhara

A history of higher education that is clear that higher learning is globalised by nature. Great to move me from my early European HE history fixation.

Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour
Michael Lewis

One of my favourite financial journalists on the global, personal impact of the 2008 financial crash. The stories about Iceland particularly stuck in my head.

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work
Joanne B. Ciulla

“Timely” is the word that comes to mind. Would have liked more on “the history of the future of work” (sounds like an Audrey Watters post!)

Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama
Daniel Kreiss

Really liked this on modern political campaigning. I think this was a rewritten PhD.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
Bryan Caplan

He didn’t know either.

Ready Player One
Ernest Cline

The novelisation of an imaginary John Hughes film from a story by Mike Judge. Recommened by both my son and Bryan Alexander.

Dangerous Medicine: Problems with assuring quality and standards in UK higher education
Paul Greatrix


Debt: The First 5,000 Years
David Graeber

Want to go back to this one too. The parallels between societal organisational structures, religion, learning… and, of course, the idea of debt.

Surrender the Pink, revisited.

A purported romance novel, Carrie Fisher’s “Surrender the Pink” is both smarter and bleaker than you may expect. As you would expect, the writing is taut and bitterly funny – as you wouldn’t expect the central message is one of love without hope and of giving up on all of your dreams.

As Fisher was a woman, her fiction is always seen and reviewed through an autobiographical lens – “Surrender the Pink” being canonically The One About Being Married To Paul Simon. Quite why anyone would assume that anything a smart, inventive woman writes is somehow only about her (and her in relationship to a man, at that…) can be left perhaps as an exercise for the reader.

And the reader does get a lot of exercise. The writing is manic and “bitty” – in the sense of feeling a little like a compendium of pre-imagined bits, fragments of a (blistering) stand-up routine as the inner lives of Dinah Kaufman, soap-opera treatment writer and inveterate self-analyst. You need to pay attention to the many coded layers – of parody, irony, reference and wordplay – in order to follow what is a fairly slight but powerful tale of love (whatever that may be) lost (whatever that means).

A central conceit neatly upends that “women’s writing as autobiography” cliché – the central relationship of the book is paralleled as the central relationship of the (perfectly awful) daytime TV drama called “Heart’s Desire”. The book ends with Dinah enjoying a no-strings affair with the actor who plays the proxy-of-her-ex-husband character, whilst the assumed knight in shining armour (from a narrative perspective, at least) arrives late, irrelevant and useless. The only possible happy ending is Dinah’s constant worries about relationships becoming a background theme to her life, rather than a dominant melody – dialling her feelings down to a dull roar, as she puts it. Or it could be read as a retreat from messy reality to neat fiction. Or the realisation that everything that she wanted was unimportant. Or unattainable. Or both.

Fisher likes to land highbrow references, and parallels, as a further layer within the circularity of ideas. It makes the point that we play out, in relationships of whatever sort, the tropes and archetypes of fiction – emphasising the supreme power of lived fiction to shape reality. And in the same breath, shows the weakness of fictional devices – highbrow and lowbrow alike – in analysing interpersonal interaction.

Arguing about relationships between men and women from what amounts to a post-feminist position, Fisher’s carefully constructed similes and allusions can be read as arcane knowledge – arcane in the purest sense as of being useless to her protagonist. Dinah is able to contain multitudes (indeed, literally – her moods, Pam and Roy, separated and understood as both being necessary) and contradictions in ways that fictional characters are generally not subject to.

If the book has a weakness, it is the power of Fisher’s writing – her quick, wordy humour overwhelms on occasion the voices of individual characters, making it difficult care too much for anyone but Dinah – and to swallow enough exasperation  to care much about Dinah. There’s an anti-Emma-esque quality to her dogged insistence to fail to make sense, in fascinating ways, of the lives and relationships of herself and others.

Post-truth in the truest way, the book speaks of places where truth fears to tread – and of the horror of being someone’s “black swan from hell”. It’s something I have re-read often, for reasons I’m  grateful for even if I’m not sure I entirely understand them myself.

Three Kings

… came from the East Coast. I never though I’d end 2016 writing about the assassination of a presidential candidate and  church governance in mid c19th America, but – I guess – 2016.

So that Helen Beetham (her newish blog linked there, add it to your RSS reader straight away) asked me what the deal was with the Evangelical Right and Trump. So I went and read some stuff about how some of them feel about it, and tried to make sense of how someone from such a background could get to the position of voting for him.

Turns out there are significant differences of opinion within the community: on the ethics of voting for someone who espouses a decidedly non-evangelical lifestyle, and also on the very usage of the term Evangelical – that latter perhaps drawing to a close the “Moral Majority” era that started in the 80s with Jerry Falwell.

But then it occurred to me that most of the Abrahamic religions do have an element of waiting for a King about them, or wanting to go back to having Kings again (1 Samuel 8, for example) – so perhaps there may be a religious cross-over between neo-reactionism and religion? And I found a couple of posts taking about “taking the bread pill” (even the terrifying extreme edges of the church still love dad puns). That link there is to a pretty serious racial nationalist movement, from what I can tell. So be warned.

But this seems more like a fringe curio – even though Moldbug’s use of secular Presbyterianism as a proxy for a motivating force for the American establishment does kind of build the scaffold from the other side a little (and many Holy books do lay down a pretty solid base for racism and misogyny if you read them wrong).

“What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?”

I’ve been reading a lot about the early latter day saints as a path into trying to understand governance, publication and power in America. Almost uniquely amongst major strands of religion, the followers of Joseph Smith left a great deal of documentation concerning corporate structure and legalities stemming from the organisation of the nascent Church and the separation (or otherwise, let’s not forget Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential candidacy) of Church and state.

Smith was – of course – assassinated in Nauvoo, Illinois not long after he declared his candidacy, which on a decidedly non-theocratic platform that included radical prison reform, an end to slavery, small government, Native American rights, the establishment of a central bank and the possible annexation of Texas and Canada. In a presidential race that reflected the growing controversies around what became known as Manifest Destiny and the Slave Question these were populist liberal (small-l) views presented in order to make a concerted reach for power, and emphasised Smith’s conventionality as a candidate.

The back story, of course, is a little more complex: Smith, as Mayor (or “General”) of Nauvoo sought redress for the treatment of his people in Zion, Missouri. As no other presidential candidate appeared to be willing to promise support for the Mormon people the decision was made that he would run for office.

Post-assassination (as the culmination of a hugely complex story involving the restriction of press freedom) the Mormon people sought new leadership (and possibly prophecy) from the established structures of the Church.

Over a period of month, three major claims to leadership were made – underpinned by three ideas of the nature of governance that are what I am aiming (600 words in!) to mainly talk about.

  • Sidney Rigdon was the most senior remaining Church official after Smith and his Deputy were murdered at Carthage Jail
  • Brigham Young could be seen as first-amongst-equals within a Council of Twelve – overlapping in personnel with various other bodies as senior advisors, counsel, and administrators working on behalf of Smith.
  • And James Strang‘s claim was made on the basis of spiritual revelation, a continuance of the direct prophetic tradition.

So we have hierarchy, consensus and ideology as three motivating principles for organisational decision making (which really would be a better plot for a musical…). And, as each candidate took a part of the Church with them, we can almost see how the logic of each plays out over time.

  • The Rigdonites headed east to Pennsylvania, but their alternate church did not last, sustaining through later years via claims of continued prophecy rather than hierarchy. The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) is the surviving remnant of this strand, taking an informal name from a former Rigdonite – William Bickerton – who reorganised the Church and formalised the doctrinal split with the mainstream Latter Day Saints. (For rock trivia fans, 70s shock-rocker Alice Cooper was brought up as a Bickertonite.)
  • The Strangites headed north-east, to Michigan. Adherents were energised by a string of revelations and newly discovered scripture, and the group settled on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Strang saw his position as king rather than president, though his hyper-localised theocratic monarchy did not prevent him from sitting in the Michigan House of Representatives and founding Manitou County. The increasing commercial importance of trade in the area, and Strang’s increasingly alarming diktats (including forced conversion for all island residents and the perennially popular stipulations about the nature of ladies’ bloomers) led to his assassination by two lapsed (escaped?) church members.  Strangites do still exist in two factions, though numbers are small and no presence remains on Beaver Island.
  • The majority of Smith’s followers went with Brigham Young to what became Salt Lake City, Utah, and this branch constitutes the majority of Mormons we know today. The church grew and flourished under Young’s organisational skill and management.

So – “Kings bad (with a tendency to despotism), Hierarchy ineffective, Consensus good” is one secular lesson that could be gleaned here. Getting things done in any walk of life involves organising, motivating and managing people and it turns out that Mormons are pretty good at that even by worldly standards.

In numerous pieces about his faith written throughout his career, Clayton Christensen comes back to the idea of “state-of-the-art” Christianity. He expresses the restoration of the gospel by Joseph Smith as an example of “The Lord’s disruptive technology“. But it could also be argued that it was continuation and consensus, not disruption, that led to the success of the church.

Which is perhaps a lesson our national leaders may wish to take to heart.

“The Bannon of Heaven”

This – incredibly – is only one of the blog posts I currently have on the boil that touches on the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, though this one is – I think – merely a coincidence.

Like nearly the entire western world I’ve been thinking about fake news and the negotiation of constructed realities as performed online, and like maybe 40-50 smelly edtech hippies I’ve been wondering how to apply what I learned from #ds106 to this now rather pressing problem.

But then – via Cogdog-style happenstance – and prompted partially by the man-dog himself’s recent and intriguing post on a “Networked Narratives” course he is running with Mia Zamora for no other reason than it needs to be done (I hope to be there) – I got into a bad-old-days-of-blogging nostalgia-fest and in looking up whether anyone had re-invented Google Reader yet. I’m on inoreader at the moment, since you ask.

Whilst meandering, I stumbled across the term “bloggernacle” – which, well, I’d use anything called “bloggernacle” and I think I speak for us all in saying that. Turns out that there is a huge Mormon blogging scene. Open education folks will know that that LDS (Latter Day Saints, which I understand is the more accurate way to describe people of that faith) and OER are intertwined in various wonderful ways, so I was mildy interested to see whether online activities of the two shared a common source. Instead I found a link to something altogether more #ds106-ian.

In mid-2005 several prominent LDS bloggers put together a group blog (called “Banner of Heaven”) based around a bunch of invented characters. The idea was primarily to “to explore the potential of blogging as a story-telling form”, with subsidiary goals of reflecting back what they perceived as the primary concerns of LDS blogging at the time. This link is to what you might call the learning objectives of the exercise – read it.  (most of this post comes from a 2010 “behind the music” style retrospective by one of the original authors on By Common Consent. It was only at this point that the original text was made public.)

They came up with six characters:

  • SeptimusH – a shy inactive former missionary, who all too often ends up dealing with dead cows.
  • MirandaPJ – a feminist from Lewiston, Idaho, who confiscated her husband’s xbox.
  • JennMailer – a perky but insecure young woman with very traditional views.
  • Mari Collier – Miranda’s sister, kind and faithful, but with a troubled past.
  • Aaron B Cox – representing the more combative end of blogging and the more… unique… expression of scriptural fundamentalism
  • Greg Fox – a non-church member who loved to hang out with the others, but was often disappointed with what he found.

These were both (semi-) realistic positions current in the LDS online milleau at the time, and astutely drawn comic characters in their own right. I’m sure coming from my position 10 years or more on I’m missing a lot of the subtlety – and would never be able to spot the point where the stereotypes were amped up to the point of lunacy and people began to spot that something wasn’t right.

Yes – the group blog was not explicitly presented as “fake” – people believed that the characters were real, and began both to worry about the situations described, alternately empathizing and judging, and to share their own stories in response.

From an educational point of view, this is great stuff. But for an online community in the first flushes of blog enthusiasm, perhaps not so much. Another LDS blog, Nine Moons, did the inevitable expose and the initial comments, from the hip young things the joke was aimed at, are fairly good natured. But by the time they began the “guess the famous blogger” competition things start turning a little more sour, and those outside of the community began to take a view. (Church and Federal) Legal issues were brought up. Senses of a community were lost. Hands – indeed – were wrung. Pearls were clutched.

But reading the comments to some of these posts, ten years on, is uncomfortable.  There is a genuine sense of betrayal. People that were accepted as friends are no longer “real”. Ideas of what constituted a part of the lived experience of peers needed to be rexamined.

It’s not hyperbole to say that this “experiment” had a long and lasting effect on the community that was forming around it and other writers.

One of the co-authors, writing a year later, notes:

Here is the interesting part: no one really remembers much about Banner itself; instead, what everyone recalls is the outrage. Either you remember the deceit, or you remember the pound of flesh publicly exacted from the Bannerites. Few of us recall reading Banner or the ideas laid out by the characters. Bannergate has sucked the work dry.

The power of the reaction, the brutality of the analysis, destroying the meaning of the original text.

All of us have the urge to create a new reality online – either explicitly in coming up with something like the saga of Dr Oblivion, or in the work of Helen Keegan; or implicitly, in presenting a version of ourselves that is just plain nicer/funnier/smarter/more interesting than the decaying sack of bones, flesh and Doobie Brothers lyrics that exists in three-dimensional reality.

And when you do create a reality, do you pull away the mask and risk confusion and alienation. Or run the risk of keeping the story going, ending with some of the horror we have seen emerging from known falsehoods in 2016 (this week’s shitshow: pizzagate).

Pizzagate brought home to me that the fake news scare is just digital storytelling gone awry – and gives me the hope that I know some people that may have a handle on what to do next.

Teaching digital storytelling is probably one of the most important things anyone can be doing right now… and for my part (without a role of my own) I want to volunteer to help out those of you who are taking this to the streets.

(bonus conspiracy theory)

It’s good to be king…

The only cure for a blank page is to start typing. The only cure for numb disbelief is to try and get a handle on the system of thinking that is difficult to believe.

So, late 2016, we have been presented with a number of unlikely events, but only three that I would previously have described as almost impossible.

  • Peter Thiel spoke at the RNC in 2016.
  • Actual, undisguised, racism is a mainstream global political current in 2016.
  • The worst thing one can possibly be in 2016 is an “expert”.

So, on November 9th, I started reading around these issues. The common current seems to be something called “Neo-reactionism” (NRx), and the prime reference that I kept seeing is a chap delighting in the nom de plume of Mencius Moldbug who kept a blog (“Unqualified Reservations”) during the latter part of the last decade. If you ask questions around the basis of the alt right generally, that blog is where you tend to get pointed. I’m not going to link to it here – no one needs to read that stuff (for clarity, I read the “gentle introduction” multi-post shitshow, the “open letter”, the “Formalist manifesto” and a couple of other posts.) Here’s a (long) 2013 Scott Walker summary of the “gentle introduction” which may suffice.

Another common reference is to someone I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, a former University of Warwick philosopher named Nick Land. Land’s research interests were around cyberculture (the “Cybernetic Culture Research Unit”). This is a useful (again long) 2009 summary by music journalist Simon Reynolds. Since leaving academia his best-known writing is a collection of blog posts entitled “The Dark Enlightenment” (again I’m not linking to a primary source, but I have read the collection).

(If you just want a general overview of Neoreactionism in 2016, this [by Dylan Matthews at Vox] is readable]

So I started to read this stuff.

And I stopped there. Terrified.

Because the last thing I was expecting was that these guys were me. Us. Tonally, structurally – the same tools and tropes I’d use here to talk about education technology or whatever the hell else are used to talk about this…stuff. Moldbug likes to mix quotations from diverse and “forgotten” primary sources with low pop-culture references, “gen x”-style irony and song lyrics. Nick Land… well, I’ll link to this: “Meltdown“, presented at an academic conference in 1994 (this version mixed with video material by his long-term collaborators 0rphan Drift).

If you go to any random “radical education technology” conference – say, perhaps, #opened16 – none of these tropes would seem out of place. After I’d stopped being shocked, I started wondering why I was shocked. After all, these are people:

  • that have been in and around the internet and cyberculture since at least the late 90s.
  • that have hung out and argued in online political discussions similar to the ones I hung out in.
  • that think and write about technology and how it affects culture, and vice versa.

They are us. They are us.

But it’s OK, right, because I’m now going to tell you all of the monstrous stuff they believe that we obviously don’t. Right?

Not quite.

So, in NRx, the worst things in the world, the causes of all of our problems as a global society, are universities and media organisations. Universities, in particular, have a huge amount of power and influence – which is used to shape the very political direction of civilisation. Which is always to the left. The famous quote is “Cthulu only swims left”. The less-famous idea is that the left (read “progressives”, “the establishment”, the two are used interchangeably within a grand idea of “the Cathedral” (not the one near the bazaar)) deals with enemies to the political right swiftly and without mercy, but with enemies to the left with tolerance and grace.

So it’s fine to be an academic marxist, but if you wanted to be an academic conservative you’d be out on your ear.

[Actually, I should add that one surprising weakness in Moldbug (other than the obvious massive racism and such) is his treatment of Conservatism as a political movement. To him, Conservatism is just the progressive ideas of about 20-50 years ago, an attempt merely to stop the march of progress rather than propose anything new. This utterly ignores the corporatist, or “neoliberal” if you must, trend on the modern right, and makes it easier for him to situate his own critique within a third tradition that includes Mises and the whole Austrian School of Economics – more on that to come, economics fans!]

And that, followers, is the big secret. Because the alt-right are obsessed with crappy Matrix references, they call it the red pill. Proving they at least have the sense to ignore the sequels…

Now – let us pause here. I hang around with a lot of people who seriously dislike the modern university, and have strong feelings about modern mass media. A position that suggests these things are terrible is hardly remarkable.  Indeed, I know many who hope to set up their own – alternative – university as a pure source of insight and education for a population that is otherwise reliant on an increasingly corrupt mainstream media to understand the world.

Well, so does Moldbug – he calls his grand ambition the “anti-versity”. He’s not working on it now though – he’s working on a start-up called “Urbit” that aims to allow people to reclaim ownership over their online life via a bespoke cloud hosting service. Funded by Peter Thiel.

You see why I was terrified?

Anyway – his issue with progressivism, and indeed democracy, is that he doesn’t think that it works. To back this up he points to the existence of crime, and of what journalists love to euphemise as “the underclass”. (As usual with Moldbug the weaker points of his argument are backed up either by vague state-of-the-world conjecture or contextless lengthy quotations from dead white European guys.)

So the obvious solution is to restore monarchy in a joint-stock holding national corporation (with the aristocracy as stock holders) . Of course. Reasons for this leap include that Kings are nice, and aristocrats are nice (there’s a might conservative aestheticism under here). Monarchies never suffered from war, strife or insurrection, they provided societal and economic stability, and did I mention that Kings are nice? Any contrary understanding you may have around monarchy is simply the lies you have been fed by “The Cathedral”.

(You remember that South Park episode about Scientology where they had the caption “this is what Scientologists actually believe”?)

That “Cathedral” thing, by the way, is a path in to a religious metaphor about progressivism. It’s a religion! Because people believe stuff, and want other people to believe stuff. (Where as neoreactionism is, I guess, a cult – what with the initiation ceremonies and secret revelation and all that). And the religious underpinning of wider society is tied back to low-church protestantism via the American Civil War, which puts friend Moldbug on the side of the Anglicans and kind of makes me want to hope he reads Richard Hooker’s “Of The Laws Of Ecclesiastical Polity” as a crash course in minutely and at length (Moldbug’s blog posts are longer than mine!) arguing for a clearly ridiculous position.

But back to everything you believe being wrong. Having taken the “red pill”, we next must prove ourselves by denying three sacred Cathedral truths: anthropogenic global warming, fiat currencies/any post-WW2 economics, and human biodiversity.

Moldbug himself undermines the first – it is accepted that (i) more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes the earth warmer (since 1896!), (ii) we are putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than ever before, (iii) the Earth is (viewed on both a geological and human scale) warmer that it ever has been. There is discussion to be had on the precise relation between these variables, which is why climate modeling is a thing. His argument with this is the same as that one creepy Uncle you have would make – apparently scientists only get grants if they agree with everything all other scientists think, and only a small cadre of brave, embattled fossil-fuel company owning billionaires can see the (inconvenient) truth. #slowhandclap

Next up – apparently we need to… pauses for dramatic effect… get back on the gold standard. A finite money supply is better than fiat money because stability, and every economic theory other than what is broadly called the “Austrian School” – you know, the “rational actor”, “business cycle” stuff that led to so much stability in the past? – is wrong. I don’t think it’s even worth our while arguing about this, but economics is a broad church (except, counterfactually, in academia – read your Mirowski, who is sage enough to note the central place of neo-classical economics – Austrian School plus one – within what some call the neoliberal economics which… hasn’t been good for us recent). Also – doesn’t this sound like Bitcoin? similar set of roots ties together that whole world of crazy.

Not quite tied in at source, here, but relevant is the “rule of feet” idea that if a serf didn’t like a particular monarchic city he could always stroll off and serf for a different one – thus excusing a corporate disregard for surplus labourers and non-labourers with the lazy assumption that states that did care for temporarily non-working workers would grow faster (and thus provide more shareholder value) than those that don’t.

But “Human Biodiversity” is a scientific-sounding terminology that allows entitled white boys to say racist stuff. Let’s let Frank Zappa explain:

Eventually it was discovered
That God
Did not want us to be
All the same
This was
For the Governments of The World
As it seemed contrary
To the doctrine of
Portion Controlled Servings
Mankind must be made more uniformly
Was going to work
Various ways were sought
To bind us all together
But, alas SAMENESS was unenforceable
It was about this time
That someone
Came up with the idea of TOTAL CRIMINALIZATION
Based on the principle that
If we were ALL crooks
We could at last be uniform
To some degree
In the eyes of THE LAW

That’s about the long and the short of it. People are fundamentally different, so we should treat them differently, and not expect equality. Which sounds almost reasonable until you realise it means in this case that “only people like me should have the opportunities that I have”. This is situated firmly on the “nature” side of the nature/culture debate that has being going on in social sciences since Plato, and uses the gloss of genetic analysis to make it not look like the backward leap it is. The (trigger warning:stupid people trying to sound smart whilst being racist) talk page of the wikipedia article on Human Genetic Diversity is an instructive read on the way the argument plays out. There is actually an ongoing academic debate on how meaningful or otherwise the idea of “race” as a classification is in genetic terms (spoiler: maybe a little, but not very much), and for a taste of that some kind soul has curated a great set of links at the article on Lewontin’s Fallacy.

Interestingly, Austrian economics explicitly speaks out against the idea that people’s economic activity is sensibly considered in aggregate based on societal groupings. Which feels rather ultra-modern at the moment, what with our progressive distrust in everything from learning analytics to FiveThirtyEight, but utterly alien to the HBD world. Which can’t happen here

Oh and – good news – you can justify misogyny via HBD too! and ableism! and homophobia!

You may think at this point that neo-reaction is simply philosophical cover for being a dick to people. I could see how one could argue that. Certainly, believing that “experts” have lied to you about everything: maybe they lied to you about the good points of not being a dick too.

This concludes our little whistlestop tour of neoreaction and how it links in a number of places to concerns current in radical education technology. Which has been intermittently entertaining, but still unconnected with our 2016! WTF! starting point. (But keep an eye on Peter Thielhe’s a big fan)

In the latter parts of his “Gentle Introduction”, Moldbug talks about how to bring about a neoreactionary revolution. These are the three steps to hell:

  1. Passivism
  2. The Anti-Versity, building an alternative power structure
  3. Prepare to accept power when offered

Now I don’t think we take them at face value (that Moldbuggian irony!), but basically this is a riff on the old Freidmanite shuffle – get out of the existing argument, build a new one and then wait for a crisis to come along so you can build an alternative.

The big difference to the “plan” is the absence of an anti-versity. It was a dumb idea anyway, in that universities have little power and less influence, and what would be done if the anti-versity discovered facts that did not accord with the chosen world view? Deliberately biased resources that correct the perceived bias of other resources are seldom pretty. Instead of a university at the head of an anti-cathedral imagine an alternative mainstream media. Where do people get their news these days, and who invests in it?

The passivity here explains the absence of active mainstream right-wing intellectuals (I mean, name one…), and thus an amplification of the perceived liberal effect of the media. For maximum awful we could ensure that newspapers can’t afford to pay journalists properly, and draw on the noble truth that a think piece gets more clicks than actual reportage. This shadow cathedral (death star?) has been sitting quietly off to the right warping public perception and turning politics into an antagonistic us-vs-them affair.

And then hail King Trump?

Is Trump a king? Well he does try to act like one… the royal court, the favoured children, the droit de seigneurthe whole Louis XIV decor… and Moldbug does call for a CEO as king (he suggested Elon Musk).

But on the converse he’s actually not a very good CEO (by any reasonable measure), and he’s a bit – well – common. Aesthetics and decorum are a huge deal for the neo-reactionaries: they want nobles who are truly noble (with elegant, long, royal fingers…)

But he’s a placeholder. Now we’ve normalised the idea of CEO as global leader it’s easier to argue for a better CEO, using the intervening time and Trump’s love of being hated to remove democratic checks and balances as far as possible (maybe by securing power with the unelected administrators before the next guy abolishes them)

[We’re abolishing a lot of parliamentary checks and balances in the UK, incidentally.]

[And see also: Charlie Stross on the Russian angle]

So this is – as far as I can tell – the thread that links our three impossible activities together.

We are living through a Restoration.

[Further notes and resources: on Feuilleton]

“All the words of wisdom sound the same” #opened16

This presentation owes an enormous debt to the opportunity I have had to both work and converse with Cameron Neylon of Curtin University. I should clarify that the good bits of the material below should be seen as his influence, the shoddier stuff as my lack of understanding and subtlety. It is presented in a personal capacity.

Substantial pixels have, of late, been devoted to the cultural “demise of the expert” and consequent de-legitimising of academic forms of knowledge. But if we want to know why people don’t believe what we believe, we need to take a long hard look at some of the crazier things we do believe.

Likewise, Open Education, as it matures as an idea has been urged by some voices to consider itself as an academic field. Audrey, in her #etug keynote, suggests that we examine the mechanisms, tropes and homunculi of academic prestige before we take that particular pill.

So I’ve been thinking about one of the new gods of academia – the citation index.


Whether we would have it or no, the purpose of [higher education] is changing. A decade ago the graduate of a college was thought to be fitted with the requisites of a cultural, liberal education, to be ready to begin [their] life work as a good citizen. Everywhere we see the demand for the expert worker, the professional […] who has devoted from two to four additional years to train […] in a special way in a particular field.

PLK and EM Gross of Pomona College writing in Science (October 1927)

I start by saluting PLK and EM Gross for writing a landmark article during a period of major institutional reorganisation. “College Libraries and Chemical Education” represents the birth myth of the science of bibliometrics – but was itself focused on identifying scholarly resources for reuse within undergraduate Chemistry education.

Gross and Gross took the latest volume of the Journal of the American Chemical Society as a starting point (“the most representative of American Chemistry”), and simply tabulated the number of references made therein to works in other journals. The academic journals most frequently cited in this periodical were deemed essential for the college library collection, as they had a demonstrably greater influence on the current state of American Chemistry.


Aside from this contribution to library collection building (or resource discovery, if you’d rather) and the wonderful suggestion that every undergraduate chemistry student should have a working knowledge of German, you would be forgiven for thinking that this paper was naught but a historical curiosity. But it was the first in a series of papers that led, directly or indirectly, to the sorry state of academia today.

Vannever Bush’s 1945 piece in the Atlantic “As We May Think” is often hailed as a founding text of the internet (our opening keynote has written, and spoken, with his usual eloquence about this aspect). Bush – fresh from the interdisciplinary practicalities of administering the Manhattan Project – took as his ostensible subject a similar issue to Gross and Gross: the impossibility of keeping up with the literature.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

In considering the future of threading through the maze of scholarship (or an associative trail if you’d rather), Bush considered examining the links between knowledge (or resources signifying knowledge, I guess) as a means of synthesising and creating a greater understanding – allowing for, simply put, better and more accessible research.

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. […] The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

Bush postulated the development of a “memex” – essentially a large database of literature alongside the links between it, as a means of exploring a corpus. But our third great influence on contemporary academia, Eugene Garfield, was spurred by “As We Think” to consider a much wider variety of uses.

Drawing on Bush’s ideas alongside HG Wells’ “World Brain” – Garfield’s idea was of an “informatorium” to serve “a new Renaissance during which the entire world will be thirsting for knowledge”.  (As an aside, these early ideas of the future of scientific literature do not even consider the issue of copyright and ownership over knowledge, seeing it as a public treasury for all to enjoy. What a beautiful world this could be, what a glorious time to be free.)

Garfield developed the Science Citation Index, under the auspices of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). As is often the lot of those with a utopian vision, his early work met with almost universal indifference – compare Vannever Bush’s struggles to establish what became the NSF. But his dream – and boundless energy – prevailed, and the work of the ISI as presented in the 60s almost reached the heights of the knowledge discovery solutions postulated by Bush and the Grosses.


Although ISI was founded to support resource discovery, it has competition built in to its underlying logic. In the 60s it was fair to suggest that not every paper in every journal can be indexed, and not every journal was. So the index started with the idea of a pre-sift. It is contended that that majority of references (80%) are made to a minority of (20%) journals, and that using methods similar to Gross and Gross one could identify and focus on indexing “the best” journals.

Even today the widely used Science Citation Index covers citations within only 3745 journals, Elsevier’s Scopus covers a wider range of literature, including over 21,000 journals – impressively comprehensive until one considers that there is not any one complete list of currently or formerly published academic journals. Of course, both major indexes focus mainly on English language publications in clearly defined established disciplines from traditional publishers.

This serves, of course to amplify inequalities built into a publishing system where (predominately white male western) reviewers recommend to (predominately white male western) editors that articles written by (predominately white male western) academics are published. It is perhaps not too far a leap to suggest that academics with these characteristics are well cited. Laura Czerniewicz showed some truly humbling visualisations illustrating this in her OR2016 keynote.


The Mapping Scientific Excellence project, drawing on the Leiden rankings, shows a similar pattern for the most highly cited papers between 2008-2012:


It is unsafe to consider indexed papers as representing the sum total of world knowledge, or even as being representative of the human race. Indexers choose (predominately) one form of expression, and – as we shall see – do not take this or other assumptions into account when describing the products of this indexing.

Citation index entries as text – and a series of terrible monetary metaphors

Paul Wouters, in his 1999 thesis (“The Citation Culture“) draws a distinction between the “reference” as what actually happens in scientific writing, and the “citation” – which is what appears in a citation index. Though each citation in the index has a corresponding reference, there are references (for instance to grey literature, data, source texts) that do not have corresponding citation index entries. And though each “reference” will have a unique context in describing a precise and nuanced relationship between two text, a citation index entry – for the purposes of indexing – is simply a citation index entry. At that point, all those words of wisdom sound the same.

The role of the citation might also be compared with that of money, especially if the evaluative use of scientometrics is taken into account . Whenever the value of an article is expressed in its citation frequency, the citation is the unit of a “currency of science”. (p108)

In economic terms citation index entries are fungible – each has equal value within the index, and multiples of can be measured against each other in order to ascribe comparative value. Also, like a fiat currency, there are several “central banks” (ICI, Scopus) which create (and destroy! – not every journal stays on the list forever) citation index entries in response to demand and to policy needs such as the need to control inflation – there is a theoretical infinite number of potential entries, but these are controlled by alterations to the coverage of the index. But there are important ways in which the citation index economy does not function like a fiat currency.


The citation shares still another property with the signs of money and language: it can only function properly in the midst of other citations. Therefore, citations need to be mass-produced. A lone citation does not make sense. It derives its function mainly from its relations to other citations. In other words, it is self-referential. Whether one tries to map science or to evaluate it, one needs large amounts of citation data. (p109)

I’m unfairly picking up a very, very small theme in Wouters’ superb and comprehensive thesis here, but I believe it is an important one.

In Blaise Cronin’s “The Citation Process” (1984), he touches on the practice of science as a mechanism of exchange in glossing work by Merton, Storer and others.

The commodity which scientists traditionally exchange is knowledge or information, and in drawing on the intellectual property of their peers, scientists have to enter the exchange system and ’pay the going rate’, so to speak. The currency, to maintain the economic metaphor, is the ‘coin of recognition’. The exchange on which the social system hinges is
information for recognition. The formal record of these transactions is the scientific establishment’s traditional
ledger, the scholarly journal. The most common form of
‘currency’ is the citation. (p19-20)

Ledgers, with the advent of blockchain and other innovations in “fintech”, have become peculiarly fashionable in recent times. And indeed, it is possible to build a simple metaphorical model of scientific publishing as blockchain with aspects of a Ponzi scheme – with a distributed ledger (multiple journals) added to via proof of work (the writing and publication of a paper) hashed (rendered into academic language) in order that value is both realised and distributed in the form of the ‘coin of recognition’ to earlier contributors, with the promise that similar ‘coin’ will be forthcoming to the most recent participants.

This model almost continues to hold up if the monetary system around journals is taken into account. Doing good research, bluntly, is expensive and is becoming more so. In the majority of cases, one must then pay either to view or contribute to the journal – analogous to the contribution of electrical and processing power to blockchain creation. And – like blockchain – these costs, and the costs of conducting high quality underlying research, concentrate contributions into a smaller and smaller group of centres (universities) capable of getting a paper into a prestige journal as the proof of work becomes more arduous.


Of course, I should add that reputation economies have a literature of their own – though this year Cory Doctorow neatly described how much worse such an economy would be. And there is an appealing parallel to Google PageRank, and to the way that the SEO industry developed around this. Furthermore, Cameron Neylon has been mapping academic publishing to actual economic theory.

The black box(en)

Adding references adds to transparency – it’s why I’m adding all these links so you can see I am not making this all up. But citation indexing actually adds a couple of layers of opacity to our understanding of the scientific process.

The first is perhaps more a matter of obscurity than opacity – how do journals get selected to be on the index? Eugene Garfield would claim that this is the correct use of Journal Impact Factor (the number of index entries received by articles published in that journal during the two preceding years, divided by the total number of articles published in that journal during the two preceding years – which requires, circularly, the citaton index entries to happen in a journal that is already on the index!). But he cites a rather telling alternate explanation:


These days, both Web of Science and Scopus offer detailed criteria, predictably preserving this beautiful circularity alongside sundry cultural and language barriers. Basically, good journals are good because they are like other good journals.

The second issue is simply how a reference becomes a citation index entry.

A reference is a polysemous thing – yes, it reflects a link between one piece of scholarship and “something else”, but it also holds contextual information (where in the paper is it?), intention information (am I being nice or naughty?), normative social information (is it the key reference in the field I am writing?), specific social information (am I citing Martin Weller in the hope he’ll cite me?), transactional information (did Martin Weller cite me so now I have to cite him?)…

All of this meaning is somehow compressed down into a simple, interchangeable (remember fungibility?) unit that can be combined with others – and this collection of units now somehow tells me something about academic quality. Hoeffel (above) attempts to sidestep this oddness by claiming it is all a proxy for what we all already know, but this is a proxy (as pointed out by Wilsdon and others) that has a deadly power in false precision.

So what can be done?

There are projects, such as Open Citations (formerly funded by Jisc) that sought to graph and link (via RDF) citations in Open Access literature. More recently, we have seen experiments in Semantometrics (another Jisc funded project) that seek to recognise the value of context in referencing practice in developing new indicators. CrossRef and open identifiers like ORCID improve data quality and add back some of the contextual information for those who wish to explore it. And there are “improvements” to impact factor style metrics made all the time.

On the other hand, James Wilsdon’s report for HEFCE – “The Metric Tide” – brought home in clear and uncompromising terms the human cost of reliance on oversimplified research metrics. And efforts exist to transfer the existing mess that represents practice around citation metrics to other forms of referend, such as research data.

Open access to research literature is key to all of the efforts to gain control and understanding over citation metrics. By allowing (along with appropriate formatting!) any paper to be indexed, it forces open one of the two black boxes that have held such a sway over the past quarter-century of academic life.

The other, around the creation and destruction of meaning at the reference/index point of flux, requires rather more thought – and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to wean the educational superstructure off scientific-seeming measurements that add credence and objectivity to otherwise arbitrary decisions.

But what hath this to do with tillageopen education?



In open education, we stand at the beginning of the discovery and “rating” revolution. Resources are becoming an academic achievement, and our only-too-human urge to see the maximum use made of our work are already leading to conversations about measuring reuse and “amazon style recommendations”.

We’re at the start. Academic citation indexes, and similar systems, are the end point. Proceed with caution.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

This is – in the vaugeest sense – a response to Martin Weller’s thoughts on “Open Education and the un-enlightenment” that I’m putting here just to stop people speculating that I’ve been replaced by a robot that only talks about citations and Yacht Rock.  In deference to the post-fact world, I am not citing authorities in this post*.

Are we living in a “post-fact” world? And is this a new development, or a more prominent iteration of a previously identified trend?

From Brexit to Corbyn, Trump to Saunders, media commentators have been bashing us over the head with a half-brick labelled “post-fact” or “the new populism” as a way to give us a handle on a world in which the arbiters of information are continually under suspicion.

This itself represents a failure of higher education, as there already exists a theoretical toolkit to deal with this very state of affairs, and it has been widely taught at undergraduate level since at least the late 80s.

Post-modernism is what a group of academics in the latter half of the C20th decided to label our growing cultural distrust of the grand narrative, coupled with the cultural theory informed (and, to a lesser extent post-structuralist) approaches to analysing reality using techniques developed to discuss fiction.

What this has resulted in is a conspiracisation of reality – where explanations from those in positions of power are distrusted, and the tools and tropes of fiction are used to propose plausible alternate possibilities. If you like, it is the scientific method if you removed the basis in scholarly literature and abandoned the concept of falsifiablility.

I’m going to use the idea of the conspiracy theory as a way to understand what is going on, and I am using the term without an implict value judgement. To me, a conspiracy theory:

  • Is a narrative of resistance – it implicitly distrusts received wisdom from any external source. It puts the case of a group party to hidden truth against a (postulated) far better resourced group that actively hides this truth, on behalf of an unaware mass population.
  • Is non-falsifiable – counterfactuals are simply distrusted rather than incorporated, significant counterfactuals are seen as a means to “suppress the truth”. Attack or ridicule are seen as an admission of culpability.
  • Is coherent – it sets up and positions itself with relation to dichotomous relationships, it attempts to explain a wide range of activity in a unified and non-contradictory way. (Conspiracy theories often use tools from fiction, such as plot structures, tropes, motivational fallacies and structural critiques of culture – in order to do this)
  • Is evangelical – ideas are designed to be spread memetically, codes and systems of reference are used to identify others and cohere a group culture.
  • Is plastic – the theory narrative will shift to encompass new ideas, or align with other theories. If a component of a theory is thoroughly repudiated, it is routed around.

Open Education itself is a conspiracy, if you like. Evil publishers are profiting from the unequal distribution of information, where they do take steps to address this they are “openwashing”. They do this because they hate learning where a profit is not made. If we attain a critical mass, open education will replace the textbook publishing industry.

If you are sitting there thinking “who, us?”, ask yourself what information would falsify your belief in open education. What information would falsify your other beliefs?

So I’m making a semiotic shift by proposing another way to think about the “post-factual” within work on post-modernity, cultural theory and (in particular) the study of conspiracy theories – and I’m suggesting we also examine our own practice and beliefs with these tools.

In essence, we live in a culture that loves to tell itself stories – comprised of similarly prolix sub-cultures. The sub-culture that constructs the most compelling narrative becomes the dominant culture, and then other sub-cultures attempt to develop narratives in opposition that attempt to displace this.

Stories can be compelling without being true. And the fact that people chose to base their lives around compelling stories is neither unusual nor concerning. As a sub-culture (which I’m going to go ahead and put all of us gathered here in, though not on an exclusive mono-cultural basis* – structuralism! wheeee!) “the elite” privileges certain forms of “truth” within a narrative based on a deliberately developed high standard of proof.

I like high standards of proof, because I like being confident that other members of the “elite” sub-culture (that’s you, dear reader) will validate my contribution to a narrative. This is why it is so horribly hard to write this post without using references or appeals to authority – I have to get over the idea that the esteemed Prof Weller is going to trash my contributions.

Others do not have to, or indeed intend to, appeal to the “elite” sub-culture in constructing or contributing to a narrative. This doesn’t mean that proof or authority isn’t used, just that these may not be in a form that we are used to dealing with or responding to.

If we want to understand why we keep losing arguments (getting to the nub of the matter) we need to get better at understanding how these arguments work and how strategies to win them work. Or we need to come up with another form of argument that works for us better than it does for other people. Or we need to get better at widening our little group to include other people.


* if you must, Frederick Jameson’s “Post-modernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism” is a useful starting point, David Aaranovich’s “Voodoo Histories” is good on the nature of the conspiracy theories, Helene Cixous’ “Le Rire de la Meduse” is an underpinning set of ideas on multiple cultural narratives that more people should read, and any decent UK Cultural Studies anthology would be worth a look for a grounding in the ideas of the field.

** cos I’m an articulate extroverted middle-class able-bodied white heterosexual cis male western European with a university education that participates on a well-paid basis in an information economy – although this makes me FUCKING AWESOME at being a member of the “elite” it does not describe everyone who may subscribe to “elite” values here. Which in itself is a pretty brutal critique of “elite” culture…



Citation standard governance structures, for fun and profit.

(the bulk of this text is from a paper I wrote to support the work of the DCIP. I’m sharing it here in case anyone else finds it useful. All glaring issues and inaccuracies are my fault alone, please leave a note and I will update.)

Briefly, a citation is an in-text link to a reference in a list of references at end of a work. Though there are some systems that focus on citations (Harvard, Vancouver…) or references (ANSI/NISO, ISO/BS) only, within commonly used systems it is more usual to see a coverage of both aspects alongside more general “style guide” material.

Many styles were developed around the requirements of particular publishers or journals, but have since expanded into widely used guidance. Some have been heavily commercialised, others are available to view online for free. There’s an argument to be made about open accessibility to what are, in essence, gateways to academic publishing – but here my focus is on openness in the sense of transparency. How, and why, are changes made to citation/referencing rules?

The bulk of this post is in the form of a list of citation/reference styles, alongside an indication of where they are currently used and the way they are administered. You’ll see (broadly) four categories of style administration:

  • Developed on behalf of a publisher or professional body by a specifically hired external author/editor.
  • Developed on behalf of a professional body or publisher(s) by a committee or other individual/group drawn from that body.
  • Developed by a standards organisation.
  • Unmaintained/consensus.

In the short term, if you wanted to improve or modify mainstream citation practice you would go via the two major standards organisations. Both – it could be argued – are overdue updates, and the mechanisms by which such an approach could be made are transparent and clearly defined. Both NISO/ANSI and ISO/BS standards are likely to be relied on in the refinement of subject area and, at a secondary level, journal-specific level. This would not be a speedy process, but with concerted lobbying it may be possible to achieve a wide coverage for any changes in around five years.

However, there are two major obstacles to overcome. The first would be the near-impossibility of seeing complete coverage. Whilst the convergence of requirements towards a small set of standards has been an ongoing trend, there are many journals that – for unique reasons of specialism, or through sheer obstinacy – will continue to mandate specific presentational methods. These may include, but are not limited to, modifications of mainstream standards, previous versions of mainstream standards, or entirely distinct and unique methods. Short of contacting each “outlier” journal directly there would be no means of achieving complete coverage.
The second major obstacle concerns the likely development of research metrics over the next ten years. James Wilsdon’s “The Metric Tide” is simply the most prominent example of a trend away from an uncritical acceptance of citation-count based metrics – newer methods of analysis, such as semantometrics, examine contextual information gleaned from the position and sentiment of a citation. Citation (as opposed to reference) practice is primarily based on academic custom – changing ingrained habits could be very difficult indeed, and journals would likely be reluctant to depart existing norms even if the “canonical” documentation of these norms was altered.

Those citation/reference methods in full

International Standards – these primarily deal with references, and may either be used directly by journals or inform the ongoing development of other style guides. As the projects of international standards organisations, these are openly constituted committees which are explicitly open to question and suggestion via well documented routes.

  • ANSI/NISO Z39.29 (last updated 2005) and covers bibliographic references. This standard underlies other styles and is also used directly by PubMed/Medline. Note that JATS (another NISO standard) supports the XML markup of references in a number of styles. The standard is managed by committee/working group and suggestions  are welcome via standard NISO contact details (
  • ISO/BS 690:2010 (last updated 2010) is titled “Information and documentation – Guidelines for bibliographic references and citations to information resources”. In the UK it is sometimes cited as, “Harvard British Standard”. The standard is managed by the ISO Identification and Description Committee (ISO/TC 46/SC) which can be contacted easily via the details on that page. ANSI provide secretariat, and confusingly the named secretary (Todd Carpenter) works for NISO.

Citation styles – these could best be described as “conventions” rather than standards, though many have spawned wider style guides. In these latter cases, an invited editor will draw on other style guides in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible without being needlessly complex. The post by RD Harper on the “Chicago” process is instructive here on methods – note that “Chicago” and “Turabian” are aimed, as complete style guides, primarily at students. The “Vancouver” method is another outlier in that it has a close association with the ICMJE, with the maintenance of a committee alongside an invited author and strong links to the NCBI style guide.

  • Chicago – the Chicago Manual of Style is based on what is widely accepted as the “Chicago” method of citation (primarily author/date within parenthesis, but there is also a footnote variant.) The 16th edition of the manual (published in 2010) is managed by the University of Chicago Press is aimed at general/student use. Russell David Harper was the invited editor, and offers an interesting perspective of the process of developing a style guide.
  • Turabian  – A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations is a variation on the Chicago style [Author/date, and footnote]. The 8th Edition (published 2013) is also aimed at a  general/student audience. It corresponds to the 16th ed of the Chicago Manual of Style, and each edition is managed by an invited editor. Originally developed by Kate Turabian, a former graduate school dissertation secretary at the University of Chicago, more recent editions have been managed by a range of editors and the 8th edition was updated by the “University of Chicago Press editorial staff”.
  • Oxford The New Oxford Style Manual (sometimes referred to as the new “Hart’s Rules”) is known for a footnote/endnote citaton style, though the manual also covers references.  The current edition is the 3rd, which was published in 2016 and incorporates the 2014 version of “Harts Rules”. Anne Waddingham was editor in chief of the 2014 edition of Hart’s Rules, she is currently a freelance editorial consultant.
  • Harvard citation is a surname-and-date-in-parenthesis method that refers to a common practice rather than a given publication. There is no central authority and “Harvard” does not constitute a full style guide. There is some doubt as to its origin (though an 1881 paper by Edward Laurens Mark is often given as the source) , but it is not owned, and indeed is explicitly disowned, by Harvard University. This BMJ article offers a partial history of the practice.
  • Vancouver is closely associated with the work of the ICMJE, with their “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals” often given as an authority. It is an ordinal number parenthetical citation method. It links to the confusingly-titled NCBI publication Citing Medicine for referencing practice. The recommendations were updated in 2015, and are managed by an ICMJE sub-committee, with the standard ICMJE email address given as a point of contact. “Citing Medicine” complies with NISO Z39.29 and names Karen Patrias as the (invited) lead author of the 2007 second edition.

Legal citation very much exists within a separate world, and two common examples are included here for completeness only. The OSCLA, with an invited author and a clear mechanism for feedback, contrasts with the very commercial and closed auspices of the Bluebook.

  • OSCLA (the “Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities“) is the main UK standard for legal citation. The current edition is the fourth (2012) and the guide is updated “every two-to-three years”. It is managed by an invited editorial team, and invites feedback via oscola@
  • Bluebook – “The Bluebook: A uniform system of citation” is the major US legal citation and reference guide, and has been developed on a commercial basis by four major US legal journals. The most recent edition (the 20th) was produced in 2008. Concerns about cost and access have led to the independent, openly accessible, Indigo Book which offers a compatible style guide.

Major subject area guides – the APA and the MLA are two of the most widely used citation and referencing standards, used respectively across the majority of social sciences and arts/humanities subjects. These are style guides in the fullest extent, covering every aspect of academic writing marginalia. The development of style guides is undertaken within the committee or secretariat structure of the society in question.

Other subject area style guides – generally much sparser than the “big two”, these are generally developed as a function of journal publication, and have more in common with guidance for submission. It can be difficult to find details of authorship, though the AMA and ACS (as the two largest in this category) are clearer about processes. At the other end, we are dealing with what are basically journal-specific guidance notes, and at this level it may be easier to encourage journals to adopt a standardised system where possible.

  • IEEE – The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ “Editorial Style Manual“, and parallel “Citation Reference” are widely used in engineering disciplines. These appear to have been last updated in September 2009 by Deborah Graffox, who – at the time – worked for the IEEE press.
  • APS – the American Physics Society “Online Style Manual” is undated and appears unmaintained, though mentions a previous edition in 2003. It is very difficult to see who was responsible for developing it, I would suspect the APS journals team but the guide is not mentioned in their advice for authors, which instead points to two contradictory journal specific guides that do not refer to the online style manual.
  • AMA – The AMA Manual of Style reached a 10th Edition in 2007. AMA is widely used in medical research. It operates an email address for feedback ( and is developed by an AMA authorial committee.
  • ACS – “The American Chemistry Society Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information” was last updated in 2006 (the 3rd edition) It was developed at the time by two invited co-authors: Anne M. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson.

There are many other citation/reference style guides (I’ve heard numbers in excess of 2,000 bandied about) at subject, publisher and journal level. But these are the main offenders.