Scholarly debt and deficit

“Violence and quantification are intimately linked” – David Graeber

For those of you who have yet to read Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years“, the central theses are:

  • Debt, seen in the sense of owing something to the general well-being of your community, is far older than both money and barter; and
  • At the various moments during history that this community-minded sharing has been disrupted by attempts to quantify debt, violence and poverty have been close behind.

For those of you who *have* read the book, you may be wondering why I have brought it up again four years after publication. Certainly, I do so with a wariness of the kind of historico-economic “cycles” that would suggest a means of predicting the future.

What Graeber calls the “axial age” period, placed between 800BCE and 600CE involved an explosion of scientific, philosophical and theological innovation – including the founding of all of today’s major world religions – and also saw the invention, primarily as a means of paying soldiers and collecting taxes from expanding empires, of a way of readily quantifying social and personal debt by means of coinage.

Easily portable, and with a known value backed up by military might, coins encouraged trade between soldiers and those whose territory they had occupied. Coins exchanged for food, supplies (including precious metals for the minting of coins) and slaves were the only means a conquered town or country were permitted to pay the required tribute to a distant imperial capital.

Coupled with the birth of mass literacy and the rise of rational calculation (after, for example, Pythagoras), this enabled an affectless data-driven means of managing human interaction – as Graeber describes “impersonal markets, born of war, in which it was possible to treat even neighbors as if they were strangers”.

Here a “stranger” is someone from outside of a given community. Their standing and trustworthiness are unknown – so rather than an inculcation into a communistic tradition of sharing and loyalty, all transactions are based around direct equivalence.

This was a great model for financing an expanding empire, and a strikingly modern economic plan. But when expansion ceased and empire faded, both coins and soldiers disappeared, and taxes could no longer be collected. Though the values of the old coins could be used to make value calculations were required, credit (based on interpersonal interaction and often nominally denominated – if not actually settled -in equivalence to a currency or other reliably valuable commonplace ( food, fancy goods, maidservants) reasserted itself.

And as empires crumbled around the world, civilisation entered what are called medieval times, or the “dark ages”. Except something very interesting happened.

Nalanda – possibly the world’s earliest independent teaching institution focused on higher learning – was founded right at the beginning of this medieval period (in northern India in 427CE), and was followed by the growth of Madrasah in the Muslim world, the rise of Confucian institutes in China and eventually (the west was a little of off the pace here) the Universities of Bologna (1088), Oxford, Salamanca, Paris, Padua and so on.

As I’ve written elsewhere, universities came into being when scholars and teachers banded together to support each other both in the practicalities of administration and in the expansion of knowledge and perspective. Relying largely on unspoken and unexamined ideas about the nature of their academic society (the first codification of this at Oxford, for example, were the Laudian Statutes in 1636) , members shared and supported a common scholarly endeavour. What we can here argue is this is the birth, in the wider sense, of scholarly debt.

This was a parallel to changes in the wider economic life of societies and the re-assertion of the idea of an unquantifiable debt to the home community – manifesting not in a quantifiable culture of repayment but in a general state of openness to share what was needed with other community members.

Surprisingly little has been written from a historical or anthropological perspective about the concept of scholarly debt.  Finnel (2014) and Allen et al (2014) both take an instrumentalist perspective, examining the rise of the practice in order either to re-assert the role of the librarian (yay! librarians!) or as groundwork for quantitative measurement.

We use the idea as shorthand for the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” idea, but I would argue for a conception that involves standing and membership within this strange medieval idea of “academia”. “Scholarly debt” is the reason we review papers, present at conferences, heckle at conferences(!), contribute to policy debates and do “public intellectual” things and – hell, why not – share stuff with colleagues, collaborators, friends and fellow-travellers outside of an expectation of a quantifiable return on this activity.

Which is a really, really, medieval way of behaving from an economic perspective. We have no way of knowing if the person whose paper we are giving a (hopefully) helpful in-depth peer review to will directly reciprocate – but we do know that someone in the community will, and that if we didn’t participate in peer review our standing in the community would be lowered.

(I’ve sneaked in peer review here – but a few of you will have spotted that it is a bit problematic in this context. The first recognisable academic journals – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and Journal des scavans – came into being in 1665. These replaced an earlier method of review by private correspondence within distributed scholarly societies, which itself was a proxy for discussion and debate between peers. In the modern era, and until very recently, the published journal article has been the de facto standard for scholarly communication. However, in using peer review as an example I am highlighting one of many roles academics take on for the health of the academy or discipline rather than for their own direct benefit.)

For the following millennium this peculiar set of behaviours resisted challenge from a variety of new perspectives – from the disruptive entrepreneurs of the Enlightenment, the bureaucracy and managerialism of the industrial revolution, the white heat of technology and research exploitation, and the relativism of the post-modern turn. Though the global economy entered a period that seemed closer to the Axial age and Graeber’s military-currency-slavery nexus, academia seemed curiously separate – contributing on occasion but not altering practice (if you are thinking of Anathem here, I’m with you).

Historically, the shift between a community-focused reputational credit and a quantified system of debt within any given society has been marked by a great deal of violence. The quantification was imposed by violence (the need to pay the taxes of a conqueror in their own currency), and drew further violence (peasants’ revolts, insurgency, millenarianist religion) in response, especially as newly denominated debt lead to the development of a non-landowning precariat, and debt peons were created.

So that sounds like this evening’s news for society as a whole (if you lump Trump and ISIS in with millenarianism, which is both largely accurate and wonderfully ironic), but what of academia, which has been resisting both modernity and quantified scholarly debt since the renaissance?

Alas, though violence (through quantification of debt) is dealt to academia, it is not resisted in kind. The latest technological push to quantify all of the things (that’d be “big data”, as previous attempts to quantify the unquantifiable failed because the data was just too small, I guess) has resulted simply in the normal response of attempting to gamify whatever system of equivalence is enforced with the violence of finance.

Even this gamification is a capitulation to the quantification of scholarly debt (what is the JIF of the journal you review for, how prestigious is that conference, how widely are you cited and by whom, how many twitter followers do you have…)  simply because what we owe to our institution -as a proxy of the academy as a wider ideal – now has an exchange rate set, and we are only quibbling around the exact equivalences.


So I was going to finish this on an upbeat note – a fight to be fought, a standard to be carried and the permanence of scholarly regard as the last community/reputational credit. Prof Smithcote (from the superb Cow Country) is probably correct that in the future we will all be regionally accredited, both in the short-term by the seemingly unstoppable march of quantification and efficacy in previously unmeasurable areas – and in the long term as we re-establish our alternative during the next great dark age. And if you think that’s a step too far, just look at Trump’s numbers.

15 thoughts on “Scholarly debt and deficit”

  1. Great post sir. Lots of thought provoking history to consider. When we sit down for our next pint(s), I’d love to discuss my API monetization ( & plan ( research, and its application in the ed-tech realm.

    As Audrey reminds me regularly, APIs are reducing everything to a transaction. 😉 videos, image, content, and even users. Measuring the read / write of our life bits are big money, and APIs are increasing fueling this across the academic layer of our world, whether its driving the student aid process, all the way to Moocs, and even alumni engagements.

    There is a trust, accreditation, badging, certification, and power flow layer being defined across all of this, and in a digital age this user profile begins at birth, and every “transaction” is collected, contributing to your profile. How do we get students to give up the exhaust from the value they create ever day early on, and as grad students how do we not pay them at all, we just give them food, entertainment, and other digital credits, feeding into pockets of tech companies. Based upon your value to the system, we route you appropriately.

    Anyways, now I am rambling….I guess my point is there are many sinister ways scholarly debt and deficit will be transacted, bought, and sold via the web, mobile, and device APIs being laid just beneath the surface–some disturbing shit I’m seeing. 😉 Look forward to those pints!!

    1. Kin – great to hear from you, and very much looking forward to catching up in person as soon as we can.

      Transactions within digital services are an aspect to this collection of ideas that I simply hadn’t considered! But you are absolutely right concerning the value inherent (and increasingly, measured) within access to particular areas of activity within the data created by an individuals’ interaction with resources, tools and networks. I think as we leave the madness of value inherent in big data (“here’s all the things dkernohan has done on the internet, ever”) we move to the ability to sell aspects of the data at prices optimised by interest (“here’s data on the one time dkernohan spent 40 minutes looking a digital pianos”). In a scholarly sense, it would be possible to monitor and optimise the time I spent doing things of benefit to various parties, rather than to the general culture of academe.

      This is ringing a faint block-chainy bell as well, but that’s not a rabbit hole I’m ready to go down.


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