Thursday, November 05, 2020

Why Talk About Data (in Education)?


An Online Colloquium
12th-19th November 2020

What does data do in education? What does it become? Why does data visualisation matter? What might teachers do with data?

This online colloquium will generate debate about the role and purpose of data in education. It brings together researchers whose work, in different ways, raises issues about data use in schools, coinciding with the launch of a virtual exhibition produced through a British Academy funded project, Doing Data Differently, which showcases teachers’ data drawings about their everyday experiences of literacy teaching.

A series of short video think pieces will be released daily between 12th and 17th November 2020 from Helen Kennedy, Neil Selwyn, Luci Pangrazio, Gemma Moss, Lyndsay Grant, Alice Bradbury, Cathy Burnett and Guy Merchant. These can be accessed via the virtual exhibition – you will find more details on the Exhibition Events page.

Issues and questions arising from the think pieces will be discussed at a live panel   on 19th November 4.30-5.30 (GMT) chaired by Marjorie Siegel from Teachers College, New York. Panel members will include Alice Bradbury, Lyndsay Grant, Cathy Burnett, Guy Merchant and Stefanie Posavec, co-author of Dear Data . Please register for the panel on Eventbrite.

Think pieces include:

Data harms and inequalities

Prof Helen Kennedy, Professor of Digital Society, University of Sheffield

Data-driven technologies, automated and algorithmic systems, machine learning and AI are transforming society. They’re having wide-ranging effects, including numerous benefits, but they’re far from straightforward, and their use can result in harms as well as benefits. So we need to question claims that datafication will simply lead to a better society. In fact, it feeds into and is fed into by inequalities. Whether we talk about harms, inequalities, discrimination, bias, injustice or unfairness, the negative effects of data-related change and data-driven systems are not experienced equally by all. This is why we need to talk about data in education.


Deconstructing data traps: Where to draw the line?

Prof Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy, and Director of the International Literacy Centre, University College London

This think piece sets out some of the issues a team of researchers at UCL have faced in documenting how English primary schools have dealt with the stresses and strains that COVID-19 has produced in our data-driven system. I will consider how and in what ways our research project findings might be able to disrupt the dominant narratives about system gaps and the urgent need to close them that the crisis has provoked.


The surprising non-appearance of the datafied school?

Prof Neil Selwyn, Professor of Maths Science & Technology, Monash University
Dr Luci Pangrazio, Research Fellow in Digital Literacies, Deakin University

This presentation considers an unexpected finding from our ongoing research into digital data use in Australian high schools – why is it that critical concerns over the steady ‘datafication’ of education are not readily reflected in current school data practices? We first identify apparent tensions between: (i) established ‘teacherly’ logics of ‘data-driven’ schooling; and (ii) emerging ‘datafied’ practices associated with digital systems, platforms and devices. In particular, we consider how promises/threats of digital dataism appear to be largely subsumed into prevailing institutional logics of state bureaucracy and professionalism. We then consider the extent to which these ‘school data’ logics can endure amid the increased digitisation of K-12 education and commercial pushes for personalised learning. Alternately, what scope might there be to encourage more resistant appropriations of digital data by otherwise marginalised groups within school communities?


Anticipating fair futures through educational data practices

Dr Lyndsay Grant, School of Education, University of Bristol

In this talk, I will draw on ethnographic research in a secondary school to explore how data came to play a role in shaping educational practices through defining what could be known about pupils, teachers and learning, and through determining the future outcomes that were made possible. This research raised questions about the role of data practices in shaping ‘fair’ future outcomes for pupils and limiting the possibilities of more open-ended educational futures. These questions can help us explore how claims of ‘unfair’ educational algorithmic decisions might reveal contested notions of how fairness is produced through data, and the limits of transparency as a response to questions of fairness.


The Five Ps of Datafication in Schools

Dr Alice Bradbury, Associate Professor in Sociology of Education, UCL Institute of Education

In this short film, I use a schema to discuss the impact of datafication which is based on five Ps: pedagogy, practice, priorities, people and power. This draws on my forthcoming book Ability, Inequality and Post-pandemic Schools (Policy Press, 2021), which examines the relationship between data and discourses of ability. In this talk, I give examples of how we can use these five categories to broaden out how we conceptualise datafication to include teacher subjectivities and relations of power, as well as what teachers do and care about.


Destabilising data: Creative data visualisation and professional dialogue

Prof Cathy Burnett & Prof Guy Merchant, Sheffield Hallam University

In this think piece we consider what data may do – and what may be done with data- when inserted differently into professional dialogue in education. We draw on a project that set out to ‘do data differently’ by inviting primary teachers to create, visualise and share their own data on what mattered to them in everyday literacy teaching using a postcard format. We argue that shifting the focus, visualisation and sharing of data can have ‘complicating effects’ which – through foregrounding data’s instability and partiality – can produce generative spaces for teachers’ professional dialogue.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The spread : breadth and depth

Having a personal library could well become a thing of the past - and it's certainly a luxury, a rarefied form of consumerism and something that can function like an identity marker. I say this because I've often been more interested in the time or place that associates with a particular title than the content. And along with this there's the strange business of the scraps of paper that have been used as makeshift bookmarks before that book was abandoned and its restless reader moved on. I've found everything from train tickets to old computer punchcards and postcards lodged in mine. And amongst these ephemera I've also come across my own notes on paper and card. In one book I recently found half a card which said 'Wishing you a speedy recovery'. It wasn't clear who was being wished a speedy recovery and from what, but on the reverse side I'd scrawled the following: 'mechanistic theories of learning individual treatment that a comp. programme may not provide.' I think it's the kind of compressed study note that's often served me well. It doesn't really mean anything at all to me now, but at the time it was something that I was taking from what I read. I do the same sort of thing now, and I imagine it as a helpful way of distilling the essence of what I'm reading. Essence is probably the wrong word, because I'm actually referring to the meaning that I'm taking away, which is a more personal matter. And this meaning may be very different to the one intended by the author - for a start it's much narrower. But so much academic work depends on this process of narrowing down, the process of selecting from, and reducing another source. This is relatively easy in a small, focused area in which a body of literature can be read, analysed and synthesised but I think that there are always problems of scale. When the output is diverse and rapidly changing this is altogether harder to achieve. It would be a real challenge to do this across my personal library, for instance. Which brings me full circle, in fact, to the latest addition to my library which is Ben Lerner's acclaimed novel 'The Topeka School'. I enjoyed reading 'Leaving the Atocha Station' but this is altogether a more complex, more ambitious work of auto-fiction. The theme that concerns me here is what he calls 'the spread'. Briefly, in Lerner's world of high school debating 'the spread' is an important tactic. The spread, in the narrator's words, is 'to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time'. As the novel unfolds the spread becomes an important trope and it stands in for the way in which we can feel paralysed by torrents of information, complex demands on our attention and so on. The popular idea of 'overwhelm' is something similar. And it is rather different from the personal library and the notes on scraps of paper which are attempts - and only attempts - to select, simplify and perhaps to go deeper into things. The spread is wide, overwhelming, destabilising and, in Lerner's world at least, it characterises the times we live in.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Meaning Makers

I never met Gordon Wells in person, but as a long-standing admirer of his scholarship I was deeply moved to read about his tragic death. It was one of those unfortunate coincidences - I heard the sad news just as I was agreeing changes on the draft of a piece I’d written. Mine was a piece that underscored the enduring influence of his work. As is often the case with writing, I needed to go through the process to clarify my own thinking, and that led to a fuller appreciation of his influence. Wells had a lasting effect on me as a teacher and researcher. Writing about The Meaning Makers, first published in 1986, it was necessary to return to the work, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it as fresh, engaging and relevant today as it was thirty-four years ago when I first encountered it. Subtitled ‘children learning language and using language to learn’, The Meaning Makers is nothing short of a landmark text. It is based on fifteen years of longitudinal research, all rather diminutively referred to as the Bristol Study. Fifteen years is almost unthinkable under current funding regimes, but it certainly helps in getting some depth. And the work of Wells and his team certainly had depth. The research was rigorous and carefully theorized, providing detailed evidence of how children’s language and early literacy developed at home and at school. It also strongly suggested how such development might be effectively supported. In his work Wells referred to a wide range of child language research, building on the insights of Britton, Rosen and Barnes in seeing language and learning from a Vygotskian perspective. Alongside this he repeatedly turned to the work of Bruner, developing a social constructivist view of meaning which was vividly illustrated through carefully selected extracts from his extensive fieldwork. Transcripts are chosen with care and subjected to close analysis in Wells’ writing and this provides an important model for all who follow in his footsteps. For me the simple message that children are active meaning makers remains a powerful guiding principle. That principle, and the convincing evidence used to illustrate it underscores Wells’ significant contribution to language and literacy studies.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Drawing on something


I took up drawing again about a year ago - I say again because I haven't really done any since my teens. Armed with a pocket-sized sketchbook and a couple of pencils we sat outside cafes in Ortigia as I sketched people passing by, photographing the Church of Santa Lucia, delving into their holiday rucksacks, chatting with their friends and on their smartphones. They weren't up to much - my sketches, that is - but I had a particular project in mind, and I wanted to find my way into drawing people. You have to start somewhere. As with my earlier attempts, half a century before, I realised that I don't have much that you might call technique. In fact I don't think I'd really want technique even if it was on offer. I just want to discover what works for me. I want to watch my drawing evolve. Of course it's not quite as simple as that. It's not all about first hand discovery. As art critics have often pointed out we are always governed by what we have seen before. What we draw or paint looks right because we have seen something like it previously. Still it emerges afresh on the page as we draw. We do it ourselves, and that's a creative act whether it's 'good' or just good enough. It's our own expression of something. Anyway, in those intervening years - those between my early drawing and my current rekindled interest, I have been preoccupied with writing. Not particularly good or even interesting writing, but writing nonetheless, and most of it professional or academic in nature. And the most important thing to emerge from all this writing is the realisation that what attracts me most is not actually its originality (although of course that helps) but the creative self-expression itself - trying to represent things in my own way, in my own voice. As with drawing, my writing doesn't have a preoccupation with technique - at least not in a self-conscious sort of way. It's just constantly refining itself. And of course it refines itself in the light of what I read. That's not quite the same as saying it's all imitation, but I think it always draws on something, even if I might not be  sure exactly what that is. The word expression seems to capture that, and if I were to write another book that would be a driving theme. Writing - technology and expression or something like that. Even in writing that it would be perfectly obvious that I'd be drawing on something.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book pairing

Continuing on the theme of books that provoke surprising connections when read together I want to recommend pairing Marilyn Strathern's work on Relations with anything by Henry James (from Daisy Miller onwards). I've always been struck by the Jamesian use of the term 'vulgar' - in part because it resonates with a family joke, (which I won't go into) - but mostly because it's one of those words that surfaces repeatedly in The Awkward Age, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and in some ways becomes James's signature theme. Relations, people and behaviours that are below the norms of an idea of respectability all fall into his category of the vulgar. For James the vulgar is a register of social distinction at a time in which it is being tested in New and Old World sociality as well as by shifting generational impulses and family tensions. Purdy's 1968 essay 'Henry James's use of vulgar' in the journal American Speech explores some of this and is particularly good at teasing out the different connotations of the word. Strathern, however, has an entirely different project in mind as she problematises the place of relations in and beyond anthroplogy. Charting the rise of relationality as a way of looking at and ordering the world she is optimistic about new ways of thinking about relations - a re-enchantment through language.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Neurodiversity and after

I was advised not to write about neurodiversity by an expert, a well-respected colleague that I've worked with for a number of years. It was very good advice, there was already too much at stake in writing for Child-Parent Research Re-imagined. The book is an excellent collection and I'm pleased with my contribution. Of course everything has to be re-conceptualised, re-imagined or otherwise re-branded at the moment - but this is only a minor quibble because it is a great piece of scholarship. But neurodiversity doesn't get a look in, which is a shame. Another colleague of mine, Liz Barrett, has used the child-parent relationship in exploring this topic and to good effect, but my family context made this more complex - that, and my driving interest in how idiosyncratic meanings get made, re-made, and re-mixed across media. I had to be close up, intimate even, to read these meanings and to understand how they were forged. Researching en famille bestows these advantages, or at least that's what I argue. I got round some of the ethical issues by making a soft toy the focus of the piece and I really enjoyed playing with that idea. But since the last ten years have been a steep learning curve with respect to neurodiversity there's part of me that wants to come back to the topic. As I followed advice and edited out all the giveaway clues to neurodiversity in my piece of writing something inevitably got lost. It wasn't exactly neurodiversity that got lost, it was more the particularities of a specific relationship. That is a relationship that is coloured by neurodiversity but also one that comes after neurodiversity.

Friday, June 05, 2020

In lockdown

Covid-19 has impacted on so many things - too many to list. And as it has progressed a whole new vocabulary has sprung up in its wake. If words make worlds we are now in a place where lockdown, furlough, distancing, shielding and masks have new meanings and stand in for new forms of behaviour, and new ways of being social (or not). We are now governed differently and UK politics, abruptly wrenched away from the national sport of Brexit-baiting, has taken on a new role in people's lives. Politicians are telling us when to stay at home, when to wash our hands, what to wear and how to socialise. Such things would have been unthinkable this time last year. When the English radical William Goodwin wrote that 'Each man should be wise enough to govern himself, without the intervention of any compulsory restraint' he clearly didn't have plague or pandemic in mind. Nevertheless ideas about autonomy, personal liberty and social responsibility have all been reconfigured in recent months. Most of us have been keen to learn about 'what we are being told to do now' approaching it with some degree of credulity - variously moderated by critique, scepticism or silent resistance. In fact critique has probably been rather in abeyance in the UK. Perhaps the decent thing might be to just accept what we're told given the gravity of the situation. At least that seemed to be the national mood at the start. It's taken a few months for things to unravel. The rationalist appeal to 'follow the science' has taken a battering. Scientists and politicians make odd bedfellows. More recently the fallacy that there is one truth, the science has been exposed. After all England, the UK, could have done different things at different times. Could and did. And then even the most unscientific of us are beginning to realise that modelling is a complicated and contested business. Clapping the NHS and other key workers may be yesterday's news but the idea of a state that has some duty of care over its citizens shouldn't be allowed to pass so quickly. I remain committed to welfarism, and this pandemic has crystallised that simple fact for me. I want to live in a society that can look after all people as well as the environment that they inhabit. I'm not well versed in politics, but it strikes me that the amount of government we need should be dependent upon what is needed to enact those principles.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Fish, floating signifiers and WhatsApp

Online multimodal communication seems to thrive when it's easy to use and experiment with. It's one of the more attractive features of WhatsApp as a platform. Still and moving images are easy to pull in, links work well, and voice messages provide a useful alternative to typing. And of course it's so handy just to click on to an audio or video call. Compared with old school synchronous chat, exchanges are more coherent. That's because the way in which you can quickly quote solves the problem of chaotic multi-threaded conversations. All in all there's plenty to research in WhatsApp chat and the smooth interplay of media makes it a gift for multimodal analysis. It may be a generational effect that I'm a bit slow on emojis, but I'm learning. Animated gifs on the other hand have tended to leave me totally bemused. Bemused until yesterday when my daughter just slipped one into the chat as naturally as you might raise an eyebrow in talking with a friend. And given that she's been studying this sort of thing I asked some basic questions and from her answers a whole new territory opened out. Searching gifs is a rudimentary affair and most of them could be described as floating signifiers in that they only become meaningful in their immediate context of use or within a particular speech community. Her partner's group of buddies use this fish one regularly in their banter - when someone has taken the bite. And it's therefore quite something looking back over a string of exchanges that effortlessly mix communicative resources - and all in the playful arena of casual everyday meaning making, the laboratory of human communication.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The religion of science

There couldn't be a better time to believe in science, to trust that reading the RNA structure of Covid-19 is useful and to hope that a randomised control trial of immunisation will come up with a coronavirus vaccine that works. I trust the processes of medical science and through what little I know I also understand that those processes take time, and I'm prepared to wait. Broadly speaking I also believe what I'm told about the origins and transmission of the virus. Yet despite all this my faith in science is a cautious one because it must always be the case that science doesn't hold all the answers just as it doesn't ask all the questions. Making simple connections between truth, fact and scientific research can be intellectually lazy. The idea that something is right just because it wears the badge of 'scientific research' or because it studied a 'large population' has widespread appeal. And that appeal has been seized upon and cultivated by a generation of advertisers keen to convince us that 'a million housewives can't be wrong' (1967), that a particular brand of toothpaste protects us from decay, or that one sort of breakfast cereal is better for us than another. In this sense it's ridiculous that we should always 'follow the science'. Of course we need to evaluate it, to look at contradictory evidence and replication - but we also need to be aware of the values and assumptions that are its bedfellows as well as the work that evidence does as it combines and recombines with other forces. Scientific communities have developed reasonably good processes for dealing with some of these issues. The peer review system plays its part, but there is always room for improvement. Although it's hard to argue against knowledge sharing and open access, that all comes with some caution. If anyone can publish online or upload a YouTube video, how are we to assess the credibility of scientific claims as non-experts? Perhaps one way is to trust the scientific community on its own terms. We could also remind ourselves that claims are only ever claims, and that evidence is always - yes always, open to question. I want a Covid-19 vaccine more than I want a vitamin supplement or CBD, but I don't believe that those in white coats are the priests of a new religion. Any vaccine developed will be backed by powerful forces, it will be manufactured, and then distributed across similar networks to those that have contributed to the spread of the virus. And in an unequal world, suffering and its amelioration will be unevenly distributed, and there's a science in that, too.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

It's not war

It's only natural to compare the new with the old, to compare new situations with those we've seen before. It gives a sense of perspective, bestowing some comfort and perhaps even a sense of optimism. But there's a limit. Comparing the current pandemic to the war exceeds that limit. For a start 'the war' - by which we mean WWII is now cultural history, a dim memory for an ever-diminishing group of people. Life in wartime, as represented in books and films, allows us to make our own sense of it.  It's easy to romanticise it. But however serious the threat, however great the human suffering this is quite different from wartime. Our enemy is not another nation to be manouevered into defeat or surrender. And our strategy should not evoke jingoistic hubris. Violence will not be involved. That cataclysmic European conflict earned its status as a
'world' war because it spread across continents but any reading of Covid-19 shows that it is truly global in scale. There are important differences. Unlike WWII it demands a global response. This is not about defeating a brutal racist regime but about managing and then outwitting an invasive virus - an organism on the borderland of life. This will be achieved through human collaboration not human conflict. The comparison between this situation and wartime should be swiftly quarantined before popular nationalism infects us once again.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Slides and datasets

These are strange times to be thinking about data. In the tightening grip of pandemic and amidst all the uncertainty there is a thirst for hard information, for the facts. But where should we look for them? As a nation we seem to have quickly turned to daily government briefings, gathering around our devices, reverting to older ways, putting our trust in media and the messages our political leaders broadcast. And what we hear is a mixture of science and politics with a liberal dose of affect management thrown in. It is a war, we are told, and we will win. Meanwhile the facts dance around in the background periodically taking shape as data - numbers, graphs, comparisons, trends, spikes, predictions and all the rest. On Monday they danced before us on PowerPoint (courtesy of Microsoft) as if to claim authority over the slippage between actual and reported cases, the distorting effects of testing, and over what actually counts as a death attributable to the virus. Controlling the pandemic will be about controlling the numbers, whichever way you look at it. Managing the response will be about managing the data. To say that data combine with government to enact power may sound suspiciously like some kind of postmodern denial but actually it just illuminates what data do and what science does. After all science is political, too. In this instance, data and science intermingle with a political view of the governance of human behaviour to encourage us to comply with official advice. Encourage is the key word here, and that's because we are a liberal democracy in which it is 'our problem' and by working together we will win, or so we are told. And of course we hope to be rewarded for our efforts with a change in the shape of the graph - what Boris calls 'squashing the sombrero'. Together we can change the data. Swifter intervention may have been a more effective approach but a politically and ideologically unpalatable one. It would also have involved thinking about data differently because stopping the spread looks very different to slowing it down. Whatever the outcome we are in a strange sort of lock down - strongly encouraged, open to interpretation and largely consensual. I hope we survive. Every Tuesday evening we allow ourselves 5 minutes of national release as we loudly applaud the NHS. Brexit seems like a dim memory. Now we all love the welfare state.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Two at a time

A long-established habit of mine is to have two books on the go at the same time. More often than not one of them will be fiction, but then that’s not always the case. Whatever the combination might be at any one time I often tend to find that the two different texts interact with one another in unpredictable ways. And what’s more their subject matter or themes can often connect with what I’m writing about in my professional life, and I suppose that’s down to the sense I’m actively making in the moment, as it were. Reason aside, it feels like a productive way of proceeding. But then there’s always room for exceptions, and the two I’ve just completed over the last few days have combined in altogether surprising ways and ways that don’t relate to anything I’m writing about at all. Michel Serres’ book Hominescence, which I commented on before, is a really engaging overview of those recent shifts that have led to a changed experience of what it means to be human, to be globally connected and to have become an all-powerful species on the planet. And then Europe: the first 100 million years, by palaeontologist Tim Flannery, traces the long and diverse history of fauna on our continent – including for example wisent, aurochs, elephants, big cats and a long succession of hominids and hybrids. Of course, Flannery works on a larger timescale in which periods of interdependence, species dominance and extinction move across the landscape of Europe like shadows cast by moving cloud. In some senses you could say that Hominescence expands on Flannery’s final chapters, and certainly some of Serres’ ethical considerations gain traction when we consider the variety of rewilding projects and ecological conundrums that are described in the Europe book. But what unites the two authors is actually a sense of optimism. Flannery is stronger on detail when it comes to climate change but he still believes that humans can turn things around. And although there’s a wistful tone to Serres’ recollections of pre-war France there’s still a strong commitment to the future possibilities of global connection. And now that very idea of inter-connected humanity comes to the fore when considering responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. It could well be a test case for hominescence. Can we work together across national and political boundaries to do what is best? Only time will tell. And in the meantime it’s a case of what to read next and that will become even more significant to me if we decide to increase social distance. What better way to spend the time; two at a time.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Meeting the King

The only time I met a king was when I was trekking in Zanskar in Northern India - and even that's not quite true because although his father was a king, Phunstok Dawa could not claim that rank. He wasn't that easy to track down. We picked our way through the rocky backstreets of old Padum and had to ask passers-by for directions on several occasions. When we eventually found him we were given a very warm welcome, invited into his house and served tea and biscuits. Phunstok had a joyful manner and relished the opportunity to reminisce about his past, recalling for our benefit a lifetime of encounters with intrepid English travellers, adventurers, researchers and even a BBC film crew. Most of this occurred before the road reached remote Padum and consequently quite a while before the advent of mass tourism. He told us that as a young man he had made some important friendships and asked us if we could help him track down some of them. We tried hard to memorise their names but because of language and accent we were never exactly sure whether we'd got it right. I remember jotting down some possible names in a notebook and promising that I'd try my best. Phunstok had email and by walking down to the internet cafe in the newer part of the town he could use it, but he wasn't entirely confident that he could remember the address. As it turned out he probably got it wrong, but that's a longer story. Back home in England I tried a number of searches with little success. In amongst the names was someone, perhaps associated with the West Country or Bristol, whose surname was Crowther, Crowley or Crowden and he lay claim to being the first European to spend the winter in Zanskar since the Hungarian linguist Cosma de Koros! Cosma was there in 1826 working on the first dictionary of the Tibetan language (incidentally you can still visit the place where he stayed and it's a particularly remote perch overlooking a deep valley). Anyway after several attempts I located someone - just about the right sort of age - an author and poet by the name of James Crowden and that turned out to be our man. He was quick to get back on email and we worked out that it was nearly 45 years since his long stay in Zanskar! I remember saying that I hoped he'd write it all up and he soon got back to say that he was working on it. James also planned to go out and visit Phunstok, but I don't know whether he's managed to do that yet. But the good news is that the book is now in print. It's called The Frozen River: Seeking silence in the Himalaya. Phunstok is an educated man, a former teacher and I hope he gets to see a copy! I have fond memories of meeting 'the king'.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Undoing the digital

Reading through the proofs of our new book Undoing the Digital is an interesting experience that throws up a whole range of reactions and feelings. These are probably familiar to many academic colleagues - perhaps to writers in general - but I've never come across much on the topic. What a mixed bag my reactions are, though! There's a familiar sense of achievement - Cathy and I delivered our manuscript, on time, and there's the proof in the requisite number of words, little black congregations of symbols spread fairly evenly across a respectable number of white pages. That's a good feeling - perhaps not quite as good as the feeling of holding the printed thing - what we call, rather anachronistically, the book itself, but nearly as good. And then there's the reading of it. Quite good at first, well at least not bad, and then the bits that don't quite follow on - or aren't fully formed or sufficiently well expressed, the bits where you would like to have another go, but sadly it's too late for that. Then there's the bits that are just about OK, not strikingly original of course, but just about all right (oh, and of course, one or two embarrassing bits - but heigh-ho best put that in brackets!). And in one or two parts there is the sense that we're saying something new as opposed to simply rephrasing or rehearsing our understanding of other people's work. After all it's so hard, as I think Deleuze once said, to come up with anything that's truly original. But the good news is that this volume brings together the ideas that Cathy and I have been working with over the last five years. And that's a set of ideas or conceptual tools that are deployed in papers we've published in that period of time, smuggled in somewhat awkwardly under the  flag of 'sociomaterialism' - the best we can do to give a general sense of where we're coming from. I suppose we've always felt that the journal article format for all its strengths doesn't really offer the opportunity to explore things in full detail. We hope that the book does that, we hope readers enjoy it, and we hope it provides some background context to what's already 'out there'. It's currently carrying an April publication date, so it should materialise in May and it can be pre-ordered!

Friday, January 17, 2020

In a state

If my name still counts for something it is in the way it associates with my passport number and my license plate. Increasingly I get the sense that these details are less important than my location and credit card number. I am now less name more number. And on my mobile (number) a screen represents me as a pulsing blue dot on Google Maps. My number moves along the grid as I move. I imagine a data stream ballooning out of that blue dot, with strings of actions, preferences and all the footprints of my transactions. People like you went this way. Yes, I remember a time when I used to read texts, now they read me. This all begins to sound like the 'fear that people become readable pieces of data, without any recognised interiority' that William Davies writes about in 'Nervous States'. You might call it surveillance paranoia, neoliberalism, quantification or governmentality. It's the same thing. Read this against eco-disaster, cycles of poverty, mass migration and economic instability, and you can easily run out of hope. The slow advance of human civilisation seems like a big mistake, even golden ages are quickly dismissed as golden ages. The trouble with humans is that they are far too anthropocentric (exit stage left). This is the bitter fruit of several years reading post-humanism. On the other hand, no-one writes better about humans than Michel Serres. Reading 'Hominescence' is an antidote to pessimism. If anyone can write and think like that, there's something to live for. I've even started writing like him myself. Let's think slowly about where we are and how we got here and use this is a solid basis for action.