Museum of Contemporary Commodities – Exhibition Rd, Kensington 24-27 Aug.

Next week, in advance of the RGS-IBG annual conference, the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) will join the other museums in South Kensington on Exhibition Rd. MoCC is the brainchild of artist-activist-researcher Paula Crutchlow and promises to build on the provocative and inspiring work undertaken as part of the project over the last three years. I strongly encourage anyone in London next week to pop into the Royal Geographical Society to take a look.

I’m very privileged to be on Paula’s PhD committee. This is fantastic work – even if you cannot make it to Exhibition Rd, please do look at the MoCC website.

Museum of Contemporary Commodities: valuing what we buy today as the heritage of tomorrow

Museum of Contemporary Commodities at the Royal Geographical Society, London.The Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) is an art-geography research and exhibition project investigating the deep links between data, trade, place and values that shape our everyday lives. This lively set of digital activities will be hosted in the Pavilion at RGS-IBG. Staffed by our friendly MoCC Invigilators, you will be able to browse the most valued exhibits, take our quiz, add something to the museum yourself and consult with the updated Mikayla 3.0 – our networked talking doll guide to all things MoCC. Two research and conversation events will also contribute to our continuing public conversations around the deep connections between data, trade, place and values.

All the events are free to attend. All are welcome. Please join us to re-value contemporary commodity culture one thing at time!

Exhibition open: Thursday 24 August-Sunday 27 August 2017, 10.00am-4.00pm

Additional events on Friday 25 August:

Data walkshop with data activist Alison Powell, LSE: 10.00am-12.30pm
Building on MoCC walkshops in Finsbury Park and Exeter, Alison will be investigating data mediations in the direct vicinity of the RGS-IBG through a process of rapid group ethnography. No experience necessary. Please book here.

Our Future Heritage: curating contemporary commodity cultures: 2.00pm-4.00pm
A public conversation event hosted in the Museum of Contemporary Commodities shop-gallery space at the RGS-IBG. With contributions from: MoCC co-founders Paula Crutchlow and Ian Cook, Senior Curator V&A Corrinna Gardner, Cultural Geographer Merle Patchett, Music Sociologist Lee Marshall, and researcher, publisher and curator D-M Withers. Please book here.

MoCC was co-founded by artist-researcher Paula Crutchlow from Blind Ditch and Geographer Ian Cook from and University of Exeter. The project is being developed in partnership with Furtherfieldand a growing number of artists, academics, technologists and members of the public.

Our early prototypes and events have been kindly supported by All Change Arts, Islington Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot Women’s Group, Islington Council, Exeter City Council, Art Week Exeter, Exeter Scrapstore, Exeter Phoenix, Exeter CVS, St Sidwells Community Centre, Exeter Library, Art Week Exeter. With many thanks to the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) for their support with this 2017 exhibition. MoCC is funded by Arts Council England, University of Exeter and the Economic and Social Science Research Council.

To find out more, please visit or follow MoCC on Twitter at @moccofficial and on Instagram at @moccguidemikayla as an instrument of analytical discipline

Saw a paper, shared (perhaps ironically) on ResearchGate, concerning and the ways it can be seen as a means of self-discipline around ‘impact’, self-promotion and how these may relate reward and recognition. May be of interest to some…

“Facebook for Academics”: The Convergence of Self-Branding and Social Media Logic on

Brooke Erin Duffy and Jefferson D. Pooley.

Given widespread labor market precarity, contemporary workers–especially those in the media and creative industries–are increasingly called upon to brand themselves. Academics, we contend, are experiencing a parallel pressure to engage in self-promotional practices, particularly as universities become progressively more market-driven., a paper-sharing social network that has been informally dubbed “Facebook for academics,” has grown rapidly by adopting many of the conventions of popular social media sites. This article argues that the astonishing uptake of both reflects and amplifies the self-branding imperatives that many academics experience. Drawing on’s corporate history, design decisions, and marketing communications, we analyze two overlapping facets of (1) the site’s business model and (2) its social affordances. We contend that the company, like mainstream social networks, harnesses the content and immaterial labor of users under the guise of “sharing.” In addition, the site’s fixation on analytics reinforces a culture of incessant self-monitoring–one already encouraged by university policies to measure quantifiable impact. We conclude by identifying the stakes for academic life, when entrepreneurial and self-promotional demands brush up against the university’s knowledge-making ideals.

Ambient literature – new research project

Former colleagues at UWE in the Digital Cultures Research Centre are formally launching their project on what they call ‘ambient literature’ this Friday.

There’s some info on the project copied below, it follows on from a trajectory you can trace through the ‘pervasive media’ canon (with the lovely people from Calvium [many formerly of HP Labs Bristol] instrumental in how this has been technically achieved), from the Mobile Bristol RIOT! 1831 project, Duncan Speakman’s subtle mobs, the fabulous Fortnight project from Proto-typeCurzon Memories, REACT projects like These Pages Fall Like Ash and (my colleague Nicola Thomas’) Dollar Princess – a rich and varied history of work…

Ambient Literature is a two-year collaboration between the University of West EnglandBath Spa University, the University of Birmingham, and development partners Calvium, Ltd. established to investigate the locational and technological future of the book. Funded through a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers.Launched in London, Bristol and online in June 2016, the project draws on the REACT Hub’s experience working with creative industries in order to produce three experimental projects from three different authors. Forming the heart of the project, these commissioned pieces allow researchers to study the processes of innovation and negotiation that become visible as established authors work in the new forms opened up by the idea of Ambient Literature. Combining practice-based, empirical and theoretical research, the project seeks to test out new literary forms and develop a grammar for writing Ambient Literature.

This is an interdisciplinary project focused on understanding how the situation of reading is changing through pervasive and ubiquitous computing. Drawing on literary studies, creative writing, design, human-computer interaction, performance and new media studies, the research being developed looks to engage with the history of the book and see what that history is able to tell us about its future.

First Contagion paper – Translating social media: promises and problems for critical human geography

As one or two readers of this blog will know, I was a Co-I on the Contagion project led by Prof Steve Hinchliffe between September 2013 and May of this year (2015). The project investigated the idea and the performances of ‘contagion’ across several domains, including in relation to social media and in relation to disease. The first paper from the work on social media was recently completed and I’m happy to share some information here…

Those who found my brief post for the LSE’s ‘Impact’ blog concerning what I called the ‘political economy of Twitter data’ may find this paper of particular interest.

The paper’s title is Translating social media: promises and problems for critical human geography – ‘translation’ here addresses the (positive and negative) methodological potentials of the adaption and adoption of social media data and techniques (some of which are ‘black-boxed’) and their attendant epistemological assumptions.

The authors of the paper are myself, Rebecca Sandover (who was RA on the project and wrote some interesting blogposts concerning cognate issues) and Steve Hinchliffe.

Here is the abstract:

This article interrogates the promise as well as the critical implications of how social media reshape geographical research and in doing so offers an intervention into the emerging geographies of social media. The article is structured in three substantive parts: First, we introduce the promise of social media research through an initial exploration of how those media are ineluctably entangled in changes within social, economic and political fields. Second, the translations of data in social media research are addressed through the applications and techniques involved. Third, we focus upon issues relating to access to data and the ethics of gathering and interrogating social media data. This provides a basis for subsequent discussion of the theoretical implications of digital data methods and the performances of socialities online. This article signals how, through the exploration of different techniques, critical social media studies can speak to Rose’s (2015) challenge to chart the complexities of digitally–mediated cultural performances, interpretations and movements through the investigation of data attributes.

We have submitted this paper for review, so we’ll have to see what happens…

If you’d like to know more or would like a copy of the paper please feel free to get in touch.

Bernard Stiegler – Digital shadows and (en)light(enment)

The translation below is the second half of the “Net Blues” interview with Bernard Stiegler conducted by the Le Monde blog “Lois des réseaux” [Laws of the networks].

In this second-half of the interview Stiegler discusses how the web should evolve developing the trope of ‘enlightenment’ (which he has significantly discussed in Taking care of youth and the generations), drawing out the play on words between light and shadow and ‘the Enlightenment’. Highlighting the web as the latest stage in publishing technologies (which have historically been central to political movements), Stiegler argues a new industrial politics must be developed, by Europe, as the ‘curative’ counter to the ‘toxic’ trend towards automation and homogeneity brought about by computation. This is the ‘pharmacological’ character of the internet Stiegler discusses in the ‘Net Blues‘. The new industrial politics Stiegler argues for has universities and the production of knowledge at its heart.

As usual clarifications or questions over the translation of a particular word are in square brackets and all emphasis is in the original text.

Digital shadows and (en)light(enment)

What do you think needs to be happen for the web to evolve?

Bernard Stiegler: I think that the web today is an entropic system. It first appeared, for most of us, not least for myself, as a negentropic opportunity, that is, as a new capacity for diversification, especially because it has allowed people to begin to differentiate between different kinds and uses of media [parce qu’il a permis de démassifier les médias]. Today, major newspapers, such as Le Monde and many others, allow all kinds of actors to convene around the newspaper, collecting together a very diverse range of views. This is an opportunity and it has given the sense of a kind of renaissance, following the development of an extreme consumerism within the mass media and the culture industries becoming an undifferentiated mass [qui avait été une sorte de laminoir] – especially in the last twenty years. Media such as television deteriorated terribly. All of which was related to an economic and industrial model that is now in decline.

Nevertheless, the web initially appeared as an opportunity for negentropy, that is to say of diversification. However, what we’ve discovered in recent years, in particular since we began to speak of the ‘Big Four‘, is the extraordinary hegemony of global giants who have gained an unprecedented prescriptive power over behaviour.

Only the United States takes full advantage of this economy of data. The data economy, which is destroying European national taxation and increasingly deprives public authorities of their capabilities to act, is based on a generalized calculability which is at odds with the negentropic promise of the web. This calculability tends towards the reintroduction of the law of the audience ratings. The page ranking performed by Google’s algorithm is a very specific, surgical form of audience rating, which is very efficient and very refined, but like television audience rating leads to the transformation of singularities into peculiarities, i.e. computable items, because it homogenises and de-singularises. Unlike the individual, the singular is incalculable. In this case, we have a new entropy process that we feel threatens languages. This is how I interpret Frederic Kaplan’s analysis of what he calls “linguistic capitalism.”

However, this predicament is not legislated, and it could be entirely different: the web in the service of an intensification of “individuation”, in other words singularities, is the future–and it is the future of Europe. Given the present circumstances, the web would totally horizontalise and level out information, because it requires processes of computation based on the removal of any lack of transparency.

As I said earlier, the web and the internet are publishing techonologies. Publishing technologies are the origin of what Plato calls πολιτεία (Politeia, Ed.) that we translate as res publica in Latin. Why do we translate it as res publica? Because Politeia constitutes a “public good”, as we discussed earlier. And the establishment of public goods requires publication technologies, which for the Greeks was writing. Marcel Detienne has shown that the Athenian city is like a vast typewriter that has wrote into the marbel of the walls of the city. After each decision of the Βουλή (boulè [parliament], Ed.) the publishers of the law wield the hammer and chisel to carve the decision in stone. This process of publication created the public right of citizens to criticise the law. One enters the politeia, citizenship, and [so] paves the way to democracy. Today, with digital computation, a whole new publication system is in place.

However, we always claim that the state of political rights, and the accompanying reason, is what the Greeks called λόγος (logos, Ed.). However, this assumes that such processes of publication enables disagreement, the publication of contradictory arguments, which we call public debate, and which is a fundamental rule of all rational knowledge. The promise of the web was to revive public, political, scientific or aesthetic debate. But this promise has not been kept. From the moment Google, Amazon and such companies had to make a profit from all of this, they became totally interested in equalising and levelling out data in order to exploit it with algorithms, crushing disagreement rather than enabling traceability and widespread intelligibility. I do not think this situation can last. The basis of knowledge, in all its forms – I’m not just talking about theoretical knowledge, its also true of ‘know how’ [savoir-faire] and life skills [savoir-vivre] – is grounded in a fundamental diversification, which when [knowledge] ceases, leaves behind dead knowledge – like dead languages and towns transformed into museums [villes muséifiées]. If the sciences and knowledge are founded on publication processes, the development of the digital is a radical transformation of knowledge, and in particular of academic knowledge. The power of Europe and the West is founded on power over knowledge. The emperor Frederic Barberousse, who, in opposition to the Pope, granted freedom to the University of Bologna in the 13th Century, initiated a process followed by Oxford, the Sorbonne and Cambridge. It is not the Conquistadors and the caravels that are the primary origin of the centuries-long global domination of the West: it is the reliance upon universities. This clearly evolves in new directions with the appearance of new devices for printing – and the cognitive as well as spiritual revolution brought about by Luther is clearly a consequence of such publishing technologies, by which Luther makes reading the scriptures for oneself the heart of his struggle. Along with the Counter Reformation, this leads to the foundation of the Jesuit Schools and the Jesuits evangelising around the world through their missions, which constitutes a fundamental aspect of the Enlightenment project, and this, with Condorcet[1] and the French Revolution, leads to Jules Ferry[2] via Guizot[3].

Obviously, the web, and the digital more generally, totally reconfigures these maps from top to bottom – not only the maps for teaching but the conditions of scientific research and the life of the mind in all its forms. Europe should not fear this, even less so since it is the origin of the concepts of the web and HTML, in which, in France, CNET [The National Centre for Telecommunication Studies] (which has been destroyed by irresponsible policies) played an important role in the design of the ATM and GSM networks. Europe has played an extremely important role in the configuration of all technical systems, but has failed to make this common knowledge [? elle n’a pas su le socialiser] because European political and economic actors are often blind to such issues. Thus, when researchers and scientists are daring and inventive they have found themselves confined to an imitation of the ‘American model’, which is a disaster for a Europe that is totally devoid of an industrial strategy, and condemned to a ‘downgrading’, at the height of the challenges of our times.

What we call the Enlightenment emerged in Europe, and it was produced by the republic of letters resulting from the printing press. We are no longer in the era of pure Enlightenment: we have entered an era of Shadow and Enlightenment [the word “Lumières” here is used as a play on words between light and enlightenment]. It is an era of a pharmacological consciousness of what pushes the speed of technology, the speed of light, also causes the shadows of the ‘toxicity’ of the digital, which necessarily accompany their own ‘cure’ [sa «curativité»]. A new industrial politics should be supported by Europe and must be based on a curative politics and economics of the digital, deliberatively and rationally battling against its toxicity. After Edward Snowden’s revelations [discussed in more detail in ‘the Net Blues‘] every citizen is aware of this huge problem that puts the future gravely at risk [un immense problème qui hypothèque très gravement l’avenir].

Europe should unite around a project for a new Enlightenment that is at once scientific, philosophical, industrial, and economic; which fully seizes the immense challenges brought by computation [la numérique]. Such a politics should be based upon an unprecedented use of universities and research organisations. The very nature of knowledge is destabilised by the digital. For example, to work in the nanosciences today means working with digital artifacts to produce nanoscale phenomena, that is to say, at the quantum level. These are not actually digital phenomena, i.e. objects of intuition, but what Kant called the “noumena”, that is to say the objects of understanding and reason. However, these are objects that are, at the same time, completely constituted in nanophysics, and are the objects of scientific experiments, by being simulated and mathematically modelled using computers. Genetic biology is made possible today by biostations, that is: by informational calculations made on very large amounts of data. The digital alters the practices of mathematicians, but Frederic Kaplan has shown it also modifies the development of languages. [Furthermore] geography has become fundamentally linked to geographical information systems, as the GPS standard has been socialised within our everyday lives. The structures of digitisation are transforming all knowledge, including know-how [les savoir faires] and life skills [les savoir vivre].

Faced with such a universal upheaval it is essential to reconfigure all academic research and to organise new links between universities and school curriculums [les pratiques scolaires] so that the digital enters schools on a rational basis, not through the stories told [storytelling] by economic actors advocating a legitimation of their own models [of the digital]. This model [of working] should be analysed, critiqued and continuously improved, for that is [the practice of] reason. Taking such a critique to the global level, Europe could reconstruct a digital industry which is currently tragically lacking. It is not only children but also parents, and elected officials, that need to be acculturated [to such changes] through schools, so that European society can be deeply reconfigured, and take with it a new model of the web.


1. In the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet developed a voting tally system to select the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election.

2. Jules Ferry was a 19th century republican who promoted laicism and French colonial expansion.

3. François Guizot was a prominent 19th century statesman who significantly promoted education.

A political economy of twitter data?

Over on our Contagion project website, I have written a blog post concerning some issues around whether or not and how we can or should access and use Twitter data in research.

Here’s the beginning:

Many of the research articles and blogs concerning conducting research with social media data, and in particular with Twitter data, offer overviews of their methods for harvesting data through an API. An Application Programming Interface is a set of software components that allow third parties to connect to a given application or system and utilise its capacities using their own code. Most of these research accounts tend to make this process seem rather straight forward. Researchers can either write a programme themselves, such as, or can utilise one of several tools that have emerged that provide a WYSIWYG interface for undertaking the connection to the social networking platform, such as implementing yourTwapperKeeperCOSMOS or using a service such as ScraperWiki (to which I will return). However, what is little commented upon is the restrictions put on access to data through many of the social networking platform APIs, in particular Twitter. The aim of this blog post is to address some of the issues around access to data and what we are permitted to do with it.


The appeal of the frontier narrative and MOOCs

Following on from the translation I made of Bernard Stiegler’s reflections on how digital (media) technologies can perform a valuable pedagogical role, I wanted to highlight that Martin Weller has given a very cogent and pointed critique of the fairly common narrative of ‘disruptive technology’ in relation to MOOCs.

This brings together two aspects of my own research: the ways in which those involved in computing R&D look to the future and anticipate the kinds of technologies they may want to produce (and the kinds of politics that produces); and what can be seen as the progressive commoditisation of our capacities to think and feel by certain applications of digital media.

Firstly, as Martin identifies in his blogpost, there is a widespread discourse of the necessity of breakthrough, disruption and revolution  in the mythology of the aspirational technology sector located in Silicon Valley. This has some obvious foundations in the need to continually destroy and re-create new markets in a finite global system of capital (as David Harvey cogently diagnoses). It also has an interesting basis in alternative discourses of progress on the counterculture movements in that same region of the US, with Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Network) a significant exponent of libertarian thought in the growing ICT industry that translated into the creation of WIRED magazine as the purveyor of this techno-economic orthodoxy (for more on this see Fred Turner’s brilliant book).

Martin offers the insight that the rather clunky, and somewhat messianic, narrative of the need for an external agent to intervene in a slow, inefficient, outmoded (and so on) sector, central to the disruptive technology spiel, allows sharp and charismatic entrepreneurs to step in as the pseudo-saviour, i.e. Sebastian Thrun of Udacity and others of his ilk. Criticism of the West Coast (capitalist) mythology is not new, of course, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron offered a critique of the ‘Californian Ideology‘ in the 1990s, and Stiegler has criticised the ‘American model’ of  laissez faire ‘cultural capitalism’ led by the ‘programming industries’ of new media (“functionally dedicated to marketing and publicity” [p. 5]) in his The Decadence of Industrial Democracies. Indeed, we can look back to Adorno and Horkheimer’s stinging critique of the Culture Industry as a formidable progenitor. What we can perhaps take from that line of argument is that arguing for a supposed ‘greater’ choice is actually a deception, the ‘choice’ is merely to consume more.

Others, who set themselves up as more thoughtful commentators have also weighed in on the side of the need for a disruption/revolution. Martin highlights that Clay Shirky has also parroted the, now well-worn, technological deterministic ark of argument. As with others, Shirky suggests that ‘education is broken‘ and must therefore be fixed by shiny new technology, in the form of MOOCs . Some proponents of this line of argument suggest that this would bring wider access to university level learning. There are a few (also well-worn but compelling) critiques of this line.

An obvious initial critique, as Martin argues in his blogpost, is that the ‘education is broken and so it requires a technological fix’ argument has gained so much traction because it is neat and easy to digest by journalists. A simple story with a clear solution is always going to trump the slightly messy, perhaps convoluted, and multiple stories that approximate the truth, for which there are unclear and troubling political solutions that require quite a lot of explanation and working through.

Furthermore, the existing evidence of engagement with MOOCs also somewhat contradicts the rosy picture painted by their evangelists. Completion rates for MOOCs tell a mixed story (as Martin has pointed out in other blogposts) and this perhaps speaks to the negotiation (by both students and course designers/leaders) of legitimacy and value for these courses – this is a sector still very much in flux. Those who are passionate about providing equal and wider access to university level education are torn by the desire to offer courses that open up (frequently excellent) materials for anyone to access but this is, of course, only a fraction of what we as university lecturers and students do when running and participating in courses.

We’re all, of course, increasingly proficient at consuming content online and MOOCs leverage that behaviour. What such systems are not so good at is providing something analogous to tutorials. The stand in for this is peer discussion/ support, which, of course, come with their own social and cultural issues around facilitation and particular participants becoming overbearing etc. So, these (socio-)technological fixes are not necessarily a like-for-like stand-in for all of those significant but hard to define benefits of university study within the physical context of an institution. Which is not to say that whatever MOOCs turn into cannot be of value, its just that its neither a direct alternative nor a replacement but rather a new/emerging form of pedagogical practice.

We can also look to the somewhat obvious Marxian critique of the constant clarion for technological revolution that, far from bringing in egalitarian and widespread access to a better form of living, education and so on, it ushers in the creation of a new proletarianised class of knowledge worker, trained, in this case, by machines (the machine learning version of xMOOCs is the example here) and held even further away from access to critical debate and the means of production.

After all, in a ‘mature’ market for technology, devices (and sometimes services) become cheap through mass production and availability. This slashes profit margins and consumer-users become savvy at backwards engineering and ‘modding’. Customers taking power into their own hands is rather undesirable for the corporate technology producer, unless they can co-opt those developments into the next iteration of the product. Thus, constant ‘innovation’ brings with it the maintenance of a premium for the ‘latest’, ‘must-have’ etc. device/service and necessarily excludes those who cannot pay.

One can easily imagine, then, how a stratification of the market would rapidly take hold. Cheaper, gigantic and formulaic courses (with automated marking of assessments) would be seen as lesser ‘products’ than more exclusive courses (with human tutor support). Those with power and money, in this case, would most-likely still send their children to (very expensive) physical universities with small classes, lots of attention from staff and all of the accoutrements of elite institutions.

Leaving that rather depressing argument aside, the framing of this form of consumer market for higher education is very Anglo-American, where degrees have already become a form of currency – for which there isn’t really an alternative. I cannot help wondering what other forms of education are being ignored (and therefore probably saved). The system of apprenticeship in Germany, for example, where more than half of school-leavers enter apprenticeships, which are really valued in society – with a majority of apprentices staying on with their host companies, is very successful and neither needs or could support a Silicon Valley style ‘disruption’.

Where does this leave us with regard to Stiegler’s argument that it is precisely the forms of collaboration that are opened up by digital media that can and should be used to transform higher education? Well, the innovative media supports being created in the guise of MOOCs and so on are neither the envisioned radical break(through) claimed in the silicon valley rhetoric or a pedagogical nosedive. As with all forms of technicity, MOOCs are pharmacological – they have the capacity to be both ‘poison’ and ‘cure’. If we take seriously Stiegler’s challenge that we need ‘to drive a dynamic for the rethinking of the relationship between knowledge and its media [supports] (of which MOOCs are a possible dimension) with the universities and academic institutions’ then we also need to take (very) seriously Martin’s arguments that designing open education courses/experiences is hard. I’m certainly not going to attempt to offer ‘easy’ or glib answers to such a problem here…

If we want the kind of collaborative learners that Stiegler gestures towards do we simply hope that they are self-selecting? Almost like postgraduate education is, with motivated students seeking out the opportunities to learn and contribute to the production of knowledge. That, of course, is a relatively small minority of the student population. Equally,we might consider the example of the proactive producers of peer-to-peer knowledge using platforms like Wikipedia, who are self-selecting and a minority relative to the number of ‘passive’ users of the platform. If the degree remains the only currency for employability within certain sectors and for particular kinds of roles then we retain the significant tension between the ideals of the pursuit and production of knowledge, traditionally at the heart of higher education, and the purchasing of a passport for employment (often in an unrelated field, probably in the financial sector) which the university degree has become in the UK.

It seems to me that it is not the university side of higher education that is broken in the UK (although it is always worthwhile striving for the ideals that underpin it), instead it is the preparation of skilled employment that was once provided by a valued system of apprenticeships and polytechnic institutions that has been not only broken but decimated. The renewal of these complimentary forms of further and higher education, with the new media supports we are using throughout all areas of life, seems to be an immediate and pressing concern.

Bernard Stiegler on MOOCs and education

The website Inriality has published a brief interview, in French, with Bernard Stiegler on the theme of the digital requiring us to, collectively – as a society, rethink education. In particular, Stiegler addresses the idea and implementation of MOOCs, with the charge that current uses of the technology are insufficient–being primarily concerned with distribution–and do not play to the strengths of networked technologies as a medium: namely interaction. Stiegler’s contention is that the digital is principally a means, or ‘affordance’, of research behaviour and in this way challenges us to rethink education as a more inquisitive and discursive endeavour, in which we encourage one another as peers (in the sense that, for example, the ‘gold standard’ of knowledge production and dissemination is ‘peer review’). He seems to suggest a fairly institutional approach, with the research-intensive university as its model.

Please find below a translation of the interview. I have followed usual conventions of adding clarifications or original French terms in square brackets. I have retained the links included in the original interview, which largely point to French language websites, with the exception of having changed the link to the French wikipedia article on Stiegler to the article in English.

Bernard Stiegler: “The digital obliges us to rethink education”

To introduce our series devoted to the theme of “how the digital changes education”, we asked the philosopher Bernard Stiegler* to reposition the debate in a broader context, that of our societies and their future…

* Bernard Stiegler teaches philosophy at the universities of Compiègne and London, he is president of the Ars Industrialis Association, he is Director of the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou Centre, and he is a member of the National Council for the Digital.

Why must education change?

Education must change because knowledge has changed. This profound change is visible in the sciences such as mathematics, astrophysics and nanoscience to name but a few… It is also true in the realm of language as in knowledge, insofar as Google is upsetting the traditional structures [of language] as shown notably by Frederic Kaplan.

And it’s not just academic knowledge that is changed in this way: our know-how [savoir-faire] is being revised, by the ecosystem of fablabs for example, and this is equally so with our life skills [savoir-vivre], they are both simultaneously destroyed by social networks and rebuilt on those new foundations…

In passing, I note that my position concerning all technics is that it must be considered as both good and bad [–a pharmakon]. A technique cannot be good when it has not been cultivated, it requires a purpose, a technique is wrong if we are not educated in it. We are therefore obliged to rethink education, because the digital changes all forms of knowledge, including family education.

Why should familial education be rethought?

Quite simply because it is difficult for parents to educate their children in the digital age! So this area is worth giving thought to because it is actually a very big problem, which risks being poisoned by massive anti-digital reactions that the Snowden case, and others, seem to attract. There is a fear, I think, that the positivity that surrounded Internet until recently will be compromised in the near future.

What can we expect from the MOOC platforms for delivering open courses over the Internet?

I am actively interested in MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], particularly in the key group [cadre] that includes Plan FUN (France Universités Numérique ~ France Digital Universities) – having myself experienced this type of platform for over three years (see

On the theme of MOOCs, I have noticed that the [pedagogical] problem is often taken the wrong way round. The process is this: we have [existing] courses and use the digital domain for their distribution. This is indeed necessary but not sufficient, because digital technology is primarily a research tool – which includes even philosophy.

I am a philosopher – that is my job – and on a day-to-day basis [au quotidien] I work on many textual sources: the digital has completely changed the way I work. I produce further texts, and not at all in the same way. I share them on networks with many people that I frequently have never [physically] encountered. Intellectual objects themselves are profoundly changed…

As a consequence, in the case of MOOCs and within the framework of higher education, it should be understood that MOOCs can only be properly developed through research activity. I have therefore undertaken to petition the Ministry [of Education?] to support those research activities – in large numbers and in all disciplines – specifically devoted to the digital in a given discipline. In all disciplines, it is no longer possible to conduct research as in the past.

In summary, it is necessary to conduct research on digital technology at the very same time it transforms knowledge itself, and precisely because it is an instrument to conduct research and communicate about it. I think we need to mount institutional responses to these issues.

What support mechanisms are best suited to these developments?

We need to create rapid [knowledge/technology] transfer processes [processus de transfert rapide], of an entirely new kind(1). I work at the Compiègne University of Technology, which has had a [knowledge/technology] transfer centre since its establishment – for about 40 years. We believe that this is a basic function of a university. But it also requires new models, such as the one we offer here at the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou Centre, on the theme of contributive research.

This framework for research and action also reaches beyond the academic sphere, with the ability to involve teachers and pupils, for example. So there may be transfer across the scholarly world, which has great need of the digital…

What do you think about digital technologies in schools?

The introduction of digital technologies [du numérique] into schools is certainly a good thing… but the reality is that what goes into schools today with digital technologies is the market! Digital knowledge [la savoir numérique] comes from the universities and not the market. But as universities themselves do not produce it, there is a gap that the market comes to fill.

It is therefore necessary to create action-research processes [processus de recherche-action] that would produce very quick [knowledge/technology] transfer and acculturation [l’acculturation]. Support processes that bring together parents, teachers, elected officials…

More generally, most of the value of this contributory approach rests outside the field of education, in particular economically, with vocational training etc.

What relationship do you establish between education and the economy?

I recently spoke about this at the ministry [of education?]: knowledge and education, more generally rational knowledge, only works if it is exposed to critique that enables Reason. This applies to many areas where the logical argument is central, and which range from political debate, art criticism to [legal] justice… This practice of argumentation is formalized with the advent of a technics of publishing – writing – that made the comparison of points of view possible. Everyone knows that the printing press proliferated this phenomenon and its influence on science, economics and modern democracy was crucial. Thus the digital as a new space for publishing enables radically new capabilities.

One can, for example, create a television channel – which I have done with my wife, without technical difficulties and without any investment. In the online school that I have created more than 17,000 people are interested in courses, seminars and summer schools, thousands of people have regularly visited the collection of courses since its creation, and a hundred researchers from fifteen different countries have participated in the online seminars and the summer school… This is possible precisely because the digital opens out public debate. And I emphasize that science is primarily a public debate – between peers.

It seems necessary to me to open today a new organology of knowledge [organologie des savoirs]. This is because the digital tools used in this field are designed and owned by major economic players, such as Google, YouTube, Facebook … I use them but of course they are insufficient. For example, they do not allow you to organize and trace the confrontation of ideas – even though the processes of categorisation that are fundamental to science are based in such disputation, and the computer is primarily a technology for categorisation. Search engines that are capable of mapping, creating historiographies and organising responses [to research] that could nurture debate constitute the future of the web and should become the basic tools of a digital university.

It seems very likely to me that the reinvention of digital tools from an educational perspective will lead to a reinvention of the web itself. Because it is the debate – of ideas, knowledge , businesses , etc. – Which is the source of dynamism and progress. That’s why I think Europe should aim to support a new industrial politics based on digital a new politics of education.

Translation notes

1. I am not familiar with the term ‘transfert’ but the use of ‘transfert de technologie’ seems to map on to what is called technology transfer in the anglophone academy, thus I have made the assumption that ‘transfert’ gestures towards something like knowledge or technology transfer. I use this translation throughout.