The Lockdown Chronicles 30: Eric

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Eric is a newsreader.
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Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, fled London’s smog for Jura on 10 April 1947 mostly for health reasons, where he worked on Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). During that period he would be diagnosed with tuberculosis (Taylor 2003) [Wikipedia entry]

The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed. The recurrent economic crises of past times were totally unnecessary and are not now permitted to happen, but other and equally large dislocations can and do happen without having political results, because there is no way in which discontent can become articulate.”

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Text sources: Taylor, D.J. (2003) Orwell: The Life. Henry Holt and Company; Sabbagh, D., Perraudin, F., Stewart, H., and Walker, P. (20 May 2020) “UK plans for contact-tracing in doubt as app not ready until June”. The Guardian; Hawkins, R (20 May 2020) “Coronavirus: Serco apologises for sharing contact tracers’ email addresses”. BBC Radio 4 Today. BBC News;  Perraudin, F. (20 May 2020) “No one had any idea’: Contact tracers lack knowledge about Covid-19 job”. The Guardian; Culnane, C., and Teague, V. (19 May 2020) Security analysis of the NHS COVID-19 App, StateofIT.

Source image: photograph of George Orwell at the BBC, photographer unknown, 1940, via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. This comic strip CC-BY-NC-SA.

 

References

Taylor, D.J. (2003) Orwell: The Life. Henry Holt and Company

Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four, via Internet Archive, available at https://archive.org/details/Orwell1984preywo/mode/2up [Accessed 20 May 2020]

Culnane, C., and Teague, V. (19 May 2020) Security analysis of the NHS COVID-19 App, available via  https://www.stateofit.com/UKContactTracing/ [Accessed 20 May 2020]

Sabbagh, D., Perraudin, F., Stewart, H., and Walker, P. (20 May 2020) “UK plans for contact-tracing in doubt as app not ready until June”. The Guardian; available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/20/uk-plans-for-contact-tracing-in-doubt-as-app-not-ready-until-june [Accessed 20 May 2020]

Hawkins, R (20 May 2020) “Coronavirus: Serco apologises for sharing contact tracers’ email addresses”. BBC Radio 4 Today. BBC News; available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52732818# [Accessed 20 May 2020]

Perraudin, F. (20 May 2020) “No one had any idea’: Contact tracers lack knowledge about Covid-19 job”. The Guardian; available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/20/no-one-had-any-idea-contact-tracers-lack-knowledge-about-covid-19-job [Accessed 20 May 2020]

Photograph of George Orwell at the BBC, photographer unknown, 1940, via Wikimedia Commons, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Orwell#/media/File:George-orwell-BBC.jpg [Accessed 20 May 2020]

 

The Lockdown Chronicles is a series of periodical comic strips made at night (in candlelight!) adapting and reusing openly-licensed or public domain items from online digital collections. Publication and tweetage are scheduled in advance. Historical sources are adapted and updated for the current pandemic; please refer to each strip’s references on each post for further context.  Catch up with the series at https://epriego.blog/tag/the-lockdown-chronicles/.

Values, Not ‘Value’: Mechanization, Marketization and the Prevention of Thought

Gooble Books Ngram Viewer results: value, values
Google Books Ngram Viewer results: value, values

 

A sad triumph of the ultimate consequences of the marketisation of Higher Education is when it annihilates solidarity- it dehumanises all stakeholders and minimises empathy.

The process is complete when education is compared without nuance to services like transport or hospitality: like airlines, rail companies or restaurants, universities are “service providers”, and students -arguably because they pay fees- are “customers”. Customers expect the service they think they are paying for. In the Regulatory Framework released by the new Office for Students,  for example, the term ‘provider’ appears 988 times (‘students’, 370; ‘knowledge’ 15; ‘lecturer’ 0 times).

 

In this discoursive universe the lecturer is a replaceable medium to deliver content. Automated means such as Lecture Capture (audiovisual recordings of lectures delivered in real time, most often limited to the audio and images from the slides on the screen) and materials shared on virtual learning environments can be reproduced and re-delivered automatically. As in self-service check-outs at supermarkets and more recently at airport check-in desks, human staff is reduced to fixing machinery errors and replacing paper rolls on the printer. The customer is supposed to get what they have paid for quickly and efficiently, ideally without having to even interact with a human being.

There are still interstices of hope from those who, seeing themselves as consumers or service providers, can still ‘problematise’ the situation contextualising specificities. There’s been enough examples of students supporting striking staff. However the long-term, official plan seems to be designed to completely erradicate empathy & solidarity from activities that are increasingly reduced to commercial exchanges. This is not limited to teaching. Research and scholarly publishing, including public engagement, “knowledge exchange” and “impact”, are increasingly reduced to administrative, management activities, highly defined by the need to meet mandated, automated, metricated processes of asessment, rating and ranking. You are so moneysupermarket. Go compare. Simples.

No doubt the industry’s long-standing fascination with robotics and Artificial Intelligence has to do with the ability to maximise the dehumanisation implied in unempathetic transactions with machines. And though internationally Computer Science programmes are concerned with tackling new and not-so-new ethical dilemmas, in general, culturally, the term “value”, in an economic sense, is dramatically trumping “values”, in a moral sense.  On “value for money”, read this excellent post by Andrew McRae.

And I return to George Orwell once more. In a 1946 essay titled “The Prevention of Literature”, in which Orwell discusses the effects of Totalitarianism on writing, imagination and thought, he writes:

 

“It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery. But a sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. Radio features are commonly written by tired hacks to whom the subject and the manner of treatment are dictated beforehand: even so, what they write is merely a kind of raw material to be chopped into shape by producers and censors. So also with the innumerable books and pamphlets commissioned by government departments.

Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials, and poems for the very cheap magazines. Papers such as the Writer abound with advertisements of literary schools, all of them offering you ready-made plots at a few shillings a time. Some, together with the plot, supply the opening and closing sentences of each chapter. Others furnish you with a sort of algebraical formula by the use of which you can construct plots for yourself. Others have packs of cards marked with characters and situations, which have only to be shuffled and dealt in order to produce ingenious stories automatically. It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state.” (Orwell 2008: 37-38).

Orwell forsaw, with clarity, how the mechanization of the production chain in Disney animated films would lead to today’s transformation of storytelling into multimodal transmedia ‘franchises’. As demonstrated paradigmatically by the Star Wars series (not too long ago acquired by Disney itself), contemporary popular culture and artistic practice are not merely post-post-modern: the “algebraical formula” Orwell described is indeed an “algorithmic formula” that has manifestations well beyond Hollywood. An example is, indeed, the UK government’s insistence not only metricating all aspects of Higher Education practice, but on transforming the practice and experience of Higher Education into automated processes motivated and fuelled by solely un-transparent, biased economic indicators.

It is particularly poignant that Orwell, in the context of England in 1946, discussed the effects of Totalitarianism on prose writing, and this included effects on imagination and free thought. For those of us interested in computer science and humanities computing/digital humanities, the schizophrenia that Orwell detected as caused by Totalitarianism is well known: the tools and processes are not neutral, and what can be liberating can be equally oppressive. The ongoing decimation of Higher Education as an activity motivated by the love of knowledge as a value in itself feels relentless, and its expressions are indeed technologically driven: marketization and machinization/automation are two key components of the strategy. It is about the de-valorisation of the human and the prevalence of so-called ‘value’ over values. Some of those values are solidarity and empathy for those who are not as privileged as we are, or whose work is not solely motivated by greed, social positioning or profit.

I am emphatically not a luddite nor technophobe, and I believe “performance indicators”, if correctly implemented, are important and potentially useful. However, in my humble opinion —and I know I am not alone in thinking this— current Higher Education policy seems hell-bent on eliminating, to reuse Orwell’s phrase, “imagination —even consciousness, so far as possible —from the process of writing”, and also from publishing, and engaging with the public, and teaching students, and marking, and providing feedback, and planning lectures, and doing everything that makes Higher Education socially valuable and more often than not individually and collectively enjoyable and important.

There is indeed the clear whiff of Totalitarianism in the disdain for nuance and non-economic values and in the obsession with enforcing and following quantitative measures and economic profit. It’s a a strategy for the prevention of thought: the idea seems to be that in the future, anything that is driven by values other than “value for money” would endanger the structure of the state.

Perhaps one day robots will be capable of organising themselves to resist unfair treatment- by then their human overlords and customers will be well trained in lack of empathy. Finally non-human.

 

References

McRae, A. (2018). Value for money in higher education: a very English debate. Head of Department’s Blog. 25 February 2018. Available at https://headofdepartmentblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/value-for-money-in-higher-education-a-very-english-debate/ Accessed 14 March 2018]

Office for Students (2018). Securing student success:Regulatory framework for higher education in England. Available at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/1022/ofs2018_01.pdf [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Orwell, G. (2008). The Prevention of Literature (1946), in Books v. cigarettes, London: Penguin. Available online at http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/prevention/english/e_plit [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Priego, E. [ernestopriego]. (2018, Feb 22). A sad triumph of the ultimate consequences of the marketisation of #HigherEd is when it annihilates solidarity- it… https://t.co/lpna0Kuwca [Tweet Thread]. Available at: https://twitter.com/ernestopriego/status/966656207623684096  [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Priego, E. [ernestopriego]. (2018, Feb 28). @martin_eve A word cloud, FWIW. https://t.co/AucJYnGNVy [Tweet]. Available at: https://twitter.com/ernestopriego/status/968860029985095681  [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Richardson, H. (2018). Degree courses to be rated gold, silver and bronze. BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43346678 [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Singer, N. (2018). Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It. The New York Times. 12 February 2018. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/business/computer-science-ethics-courses.html [Accessed 14 March 2018]

 

 

 


This post includes lines I originally tweeted as part of a thread on 22 February 2018.