Innovation and the Novelty Factory

My ears and eyes seem to have been bombarded by one word so often over the last couple of weeks that I’m now developing something akin to shell shock. A nervous tick here, a Tourette-esque outburst there, a cringe and a cry, a bewildered look in my eyes and a wanton desire to disconnect and float away.

Innovation.

Over hyped and over used the mere mention of innovation makes me wince.

You see

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What scares me about this trend is that now innovation is being talked about in government policy, institutional strategies and every goddamn mission statement known to man – and yet, I don’t think there is any understanding about what innovation is: what it really means, what it entails or the implications of adopting it actually are.

Horace Dediu posits a taxonomy which I think is extremely useful to help discern innovation and reduces some confusion:

Novelty: Something new
Creation: Something new and valuable
Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Using that model we can see that a lot of what people declare as “innovative” should be re-graded as simple novelty, and what people want in their mission statements isn’t innovation but creation. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not something that everyone should aspire to or need to achieve. In fact the pursuit of innovation often means that quality, sustainability and longevity are put at risk.

Innovation is a lot harder and more difficult to achieve because it is essentially change. And the reality is that most people don’t want to do that.

People want the same, but better. Faster and cheaper, but not different.

Change is hard. It’s disruptive and scary. Innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtractive – you have to lose or destroy something in order to attain it. It’s not the same but better, it’s different and better. It requires the embrace of something new, different and foreign.

Innovation is not something everyone should be striving for, and the reality is that they’re actually not. They use the label of “innovation” but if you listen to the pundits in government, technology and finance sectors what they actually want is Novelty. They want something that generates “new” at scale and from very little real investment or effort. What they crave is the Novelty Factory where you can package something differently, appify it, give it a new spin, change the colour and produce it at scale, but never actually do anything different. The reason for this is that novelty has the potential for massive profits, simply because who doesn’t like new? It’s engrained in our psyche to be curious and that’s exploited ruthlessly through an array of psychological manipulations that drive the cravings of a consumerist economy.

You’ll hear plenty about “disruption” but how much of that is actual innovation? How much is actually changing? Isn’t it just the same as before? Isn’t it just like the other thing? Isn’t it simile rather than metaphor? If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption.

People don’t want to invest in innovation because change is really hard. It’s complex, expensive and risky and more often than not takes time – years if not decades. It requires behaviours and mindsets to adapt to entirely different concepts, inputs and environments. It requires people to leave behind what they did, what they built reputations on, what they trust and tacitly know, and replace it with something strange. Innovation is about trust and relationships more than anything else. It’s about building, shaping and learning not just coming up with ideas.

What most people want is novelty – simple, cheap, dumb and easy to sell. You can invest in that. You can profit from that.

Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation – it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change. Sure there are innovators operating there, but they simply share the space rather than dominate it.

Real innovation requires change, not from the product but the audience, user or consumer. That’s where the complexity lies – it’s not about coming up with something new, its about convincing people to change. To let go of traditions and to trade in status, comfort and power from the old model to embrace something new and different. It’s for this reason that true innovation is exceedingly rare. There are plenty of new things we do, but how many require real change? How many were really just the same, but better? How many were subtractive and forced you to give away, give up and destroy?

Innovation is not as pervasive as we think, nor should it be as widespread as we’re led to believe.

I think there’s a need for a more nuanced approach to innovation, invention, creation and novelty. The distinctions are important and there’s a growing need to articulate the difference, to accept it and to choose what it is they need. If we want governments and institutions to embrace innovation we need to really understand what that means and what’s at risk. Maybe when we think about it novelty is enough, or that creativity is more important. Maybe that’s the real innovation.

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/4jCHgj

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The Value of Exploitation

At the core of our societal structures, economic and political systems is exploitation.

Exploitation creates value in the most simplistic way by imposing a basic deficit model – I have, you do not.

Exploitation is systematic unfairness. It divides and separates people. It motivates the worst aspects of our human nature and utilises our innate ability to blinker, separate and abstract ourselves. It divorces us as individuals from what made us successful as a species the very idea of what is shared and common.

Value is created through exploitation which is then represented by “wealth”. Wealth is the abstracted concept of value and the process of having what others do not.

Money is the evolved representation of wealth. Before money wealth was tangible through physical manifestations such lands and treasure. Easily seen, easily coveted, easily taken. Money, in particular it’s digital form, abstracts wealth into something more pure and fitting of the modes and methods of current exploitation. Rather than simply act as a tool to simplify trade and exchange, money allows wealth to be accumulated in truly unimaginable amounts. Hidden and locked away as digits in a database its form is disguised – no longer an object easily identifiable, coveted or requiring armies to protect it. Wealth is removed from social constraints, removed from communities and removed from any need for redistribution.

The abstraction of wealth, and it’s associated value, into money allows exploitation to go on unfettered, unmonitored and mostly incomprehensible. How can you rebel against something you cannot imagine? How can you revolt against that which you cannot see? How can you reclaim that which isn’t tangible?

The current economic model of globalisation amplifies exploitation into a form that is trans and multinational. Exploitation can be systematised and localised – Asia becomes the hub to industrial exploitation, Australia and South America the environmental, North America and Europe is informational and economic while Africa is only pock-marked with points of exploitation due to its violent instability. Global exploitation is now almost complete – and for what? And for who?

The global disparity in wealth has never been higher. There is only an incredibly small number of humans on the planet actually benefiting form this global form of exploitation. As we charge into the Anthropocene leaving an indelible mark on the land, water and air around us – who benefits? As we poison the air, land and water shouldn’t we be asking why? As we destroy the planet piece by piece what do we gain as a people?

Capitalist ideology will simply attach value to something new – from land to industry, from industry to labour, from labour to information. Whenever a limit is reached you simply change the game, change the rules and move the goal posts.

Every equality is eroded.

Every commons is enclosed.

The value system that we’ve created has become so abstracted that people, the environment and the relationships we form are anomalies and impediments of the system. They are the dark areas, the externalities that affect the system but are not of it.

How did we develop a system that doesn’t recognise us or the ecosystem around us as part of it?

It has to change.

We need to move to a post-capital mindset. As an idea it is about finding and attaching value to something else – us. This is how you redistribute wealth. You assign value to each and every individual. The same value. In this way wealth is truly democratic and is untethered from the deficit model. Our footprint and ecosystem are not external to the notion of wealth, they become are part of it.

Can we effect this change now or will it emerge from the ruins? Will it require exploitation to reach its conclusion before we are ready to transform? How much needs to be exploited to the point it collapsed and is destroyed? What are we willing to lose in order to live appropriately? The forests? The oceans? The ice caps? The air we breathe?


POSTSCRIPT – After writing this post I listened to Can accountants save the planet? and Jane Gleeson-White discuss the idea of Six Capitals. It’s an interesting concept but there are some big caveats to this kind of approach. Monboit’s comment sums this up perfectly:

‘… everything will be fungible, nothing will be valued for its own sake, place and past and love and enchantment will have no meaning. The natural world will be reduced to a column of figures.’
– Guardian, 2014

I’m not sure if this is the right approach, but the singular model of financial capital has passed its use by date.

Image used https://flic.kr/p/owgD3y

The Enclosure of the Web

It’s been a dark time in Australia when it comes to our lives in digital spaces. Both sides of government voted to instate draconian, opaque and dangerous new legislation to increase surveillance. They have traded the people’s freedom and right to privacy for “increased national security” – a term I am yet to understand. Now we can be watched, monitored and investigated at any time without our consent and with no impartial oversight.

So ridiculous are these measures that members of government have been spruiking apps, tools and practices to circumvent the legislation they were working to implement. I kid you fucking not!

Australia however is not alone in its pursuit of greater surveillance. Similar efforts are underway in Canada and the UK, perhaps trying to replicate the truly horrifying efforts of the US. Despite these efforts little has been discussed by the general public and even less about the implications of these measures. Its complex but it is vital as John Oliver pointed out vividly in his recent interview with Edward Snowden:

So what happens when we are forced into trading the open web for something that needs to be encrypted, secure, private and hidden simply to avoid someone watching over your shoulder noting your every move? Is the concept of “security” actually cannibalising itself to the point where safety and privacy are eliminated rather than upheld?

At the same time one area that really hasn’t been discussed at all is how we as a people are being forced behind a firewall and to surrender the distributed commons that is the web.

Want email? Just get inside Gmail or Outlook – just don’t use a local service because Australian big brother is watching that. Don’t worry though because the NSA is watching the others.

Want to communicate with friends and family? Just use this app that has built in encryption. Don’t worry that now you’re being surveilled by a corporate vulture who on-sell your data to the highest bidder.

Want to read the news? Just do it inside Facebook!

App this and app that. The Web is Dead. Access is no longer free.

The vectors of information have been taken over, monetised and passage is paid by surrendering our data. The commons has been taken away and eroded by corporate interests and government surveillance and all of this has happened before.

During the agricultural revolution this process was known as “enclosure“:

the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners.

I’d say the web as it was, an open commons of information, is being enclosed. The Information Revolution, or whatever you want to call it, is following the same script.

Just like the before the process is being accomplished in two ways:

  1. “by buying the ground rights and all common rights to accomplish exclusive rights of use, which increased the value”. Hello Silicon Valley and startup culture where the aim is not to contribute to the commons, but get bought out by someone bigger. Data is the asset and the value point is not in what your app can do – but how many users and how much data you can get!
  2. “by passing laws causing or forcing enclosure, such as Parliamentary enclosure”. Hello Australian government! Your actions – implicit or explicit,implied or not will have the same effect. “Come inside our walled garden, its safe in here!” they’ll say. Government surveillance destroys the commons and forces people to seek safety and privacy somewhere else.

For labour the fallout of enclosure was considered a positive sum, but that requires you to completely disregard the hunger, suffering and displacement that occurred. Sure, eventually displaced workers found jobs and their labour fuelled the industrial revolution but many died and many lost centuries of knowledge, wisdom and connection. They lost their identity and cultural heritage as they were forced off the land. This process was repeated as part of global colonisation, not because it was good, but because it worked. It worked to establish a new ruling class and elite. It effectively worked to dispossess the people of all they had so they had to trade their agrarian subsistence for the exploitation of the workhouse. It reduced skilled and knowledgable agronomists to become simply cogs in the machine.

So what looms ahead in our revolution? What do we lose as we’re slowly being enclosed?

Let’s not forget that there is value in the commons.

It’s not in efficiency or profitability it’s in building social cohesion. It becomes a place to share, to cooperate and collaborate. It becomes a place to dance and feast and celebrate as well as to mourn and cry and grieve. The commons is the heart of a community, something that urban planners are finally starting to understand. You don’t achieve social cohesion without the commons and housing projects around the world provide all the evidence you need to understand that. By focussing on efforts on building housing and not a community the commons was left off the plans and what ensued was complete social chaos.

So when I look at what’s happening on the web I wonder what is to come…

What if we lose the commons? What happens if the web is enclosed?

Image used https://flic.kr/p/nZotpM

Reactive Ideas

The next three posts that will appear on the blog have been worked on concurrently for the past couple of weeks. They started as ideas and thoughts that grew out of what I saw and felt was happening around me. They’ve lived in draft form since their inception, not quite finished enough to let out as they weren’t really clear in my head, let alone as text.

Over the last week they’ve coalesced into something more solid – solid and connected.

Working on these three seperate topics – enclosure, innovation and exploitation – at the same time has been an interesting experience. Phrases that started in one post drifted into another. Concept that didn’t work in one would work in another. They fed each other and it’s been a strange experience to be part of. They aren’t a series as such but definitely share an origin and a process.

I’ve tagged them as Reactive Ideas because at their heart was a pure reaction to the world around me. A mental and physical reaction to events going on around me. Nothing in here is revolutionary or new – in fact there’s an increasing sense of history repeating itself. They are of their time and place and triggered by social happenings but they have forced me to ask bigger and deeper questions. About our society, what we value, where we are going and in some ways what we are destroying and willing to destroy.

They may seem a little bit off topic from what I’m usually banging on about in regards to edtech – but I can assure you they are linked. They explore ideas that are fundamental to the role and force that technology plays in our world and the trust we place in it. Maybe drawing more explicit links is another set of posts.

Subconsciously there seems to be a bit of Marx embedded in these posts. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed emerge from the process of writing, editing and rewriting them. I’ve been exposed to more Marxist critique and ideas recently mainly because I find them exceptionally relevent. His critique of capitalism is extremely insightful and the hype around Picketty’s book and the coversations stimulated by Stiglitz has revived a lot of the concepts and solutions that link back Marx. There’s a global discussion about what global capitalism is doing and the problems that it not only created but continues to exacerbate rather than solve. I think there’s also a deep concern for the lack humanity built into to the discussion going on around us. The ease that people can be abstracted from situations is deeply concerning and I wonder if empathy is being drained out of society.

It might explain why this resonated so much:

The other influencer on these subconscious thoughts was McKenzie Wark’s work on the athropocene and probably more directly his essay on 21st-Century Marxisms. Both of these broad topics have exposed me to many new ideas and thinkers including CSU colleague Clive Hamilton.

It feels good to get these three posts out. It’s been a challenge and an interesting experience – hence this post – and something a little unique to how I usually work. It will be interesting to see if they resonate with anyone else 🙂

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/pVSiLo

Abstraction

Abstraction is changing the way something is represented in order to move it beyond its constraints.

This is perhaps best represented by the abstraction of oral language into written form. This abstraction frees language from the constraints of the spoken word – in particular the physical and temporal. It’s why we can read the words of Plato and Shakespeare despite the centuries that have passed since they last spoke.

The process of abstraction also changes the nature of what it represents. This uncoupling of constraints impacts both positively and negatively. In the case of language – writing liberates language so that it can be communicated broadly across time and space. At the same time this process removes key elements of its oral base – the social, ephemeral and tonal qualities that are embedded into the spoken word.

The written word takes on a monumental nature, embodying permanence and scale in comparison to the fluidity of our oral languages.

Stone vs water.

As an aside its interesting to see written text begin to embody more liquidity as the abundance of data and information being produced increases.

One of the most valuable aspects of abstraction is its ability to simplify complicated processes. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mathematics. Through mathematics the simplification of complicated information and processes has been turned into an art. Extraordinarily complicated calculations and data sets can be crunched down into elegant and often beautiful equations. In doing so we can extend mathematics into increasingly complicated areas – but they’re complicated not complex.

Complexity is the weakness of abstraction.

At its heart complexity involves uncontrolled change and variation, which tends to wreak havoc on carefully developed complicated systems. The process of abstraction removes many of background, meta and environmental factors as noise in order to improve the signal they have chosen.

Complicated systems are improved by breaking them down into individual parts and components. These can then each be improved which will lead to incremental positive change to the system as a whole. This is the Talyorist or Scientific Management process.

Complex systems don’t follow the same pattern, in fact quite often working on the parts separately or in isolation actually damages the system. Improvements to a complex system are made by working on the interactions between parts, rather than the parts themselves.

(This is a repost of the original FedWiki contribution. You can fork, edit and extend the original.)

Silence and Free Speech

There’s a false argument that’s been floating around the concept of free speech for some time. Over the last couple of months I’ve taken an interest in it to attempt to understand what it is that’s really going on.

The argument itself pits Free Speech on one side and Offence or Decency on the other. The media rolls this thing out constantly tapping into the publics seemingly endless ability to take offence at anything you can possibly say. Whether it’s a bad joke, a good joke, an utterance that’s lip read or a misguided or youthfully naive tweet. If you want to read just one piece that utterly destroy the dichotomy of free speech and offence I would turn to the wisdom of the clown. Comedian Doug Stanhope have written the most fluent and coherent counter to this debate .

The problem is that these comparisons and equivalencies are false. They are not the two sides of the same argument and indeed the comparison hinders any real debate about the essential idea of freedom. My reasoning for this stance is simple:

Free Speech is about the act of Expression.

Offence and Decency are not a counterpoint to free speech, they are a reaction to it. They are themselves – expressions.

The opposite of Expression is Silence.

The dichotomy between free speech and offence or decency is false and it’s why the current debate is nonsense. The underlying premise is wrong and what you end up doing is essentially arguing against the same side of the debate. To actually have an argument you would have Free Speech I one side but you then need to put an actual equivalent on the other side – and that’s Silence. Silence is the absence of expression. You can attach motive and meaning to silence just like you can with speech. These may not be self-evident but embedded and contained within.

Silence is extremely powerful counter point to free speech. Steven Skala explores it in-depth in his lecture The Power of Silence. He prompts us to reflect on the silences as a guide to genuine understanding.

Silences and omissions, covert and overt, occur around us and cause us, positively or negatively, to shape our own experience, and most significantly, our understanding of the nature of things that are often most important to us.

When you start to reflect on the silences around us things really do start to get interesting. On one side you have the ability to expresses and on the other we have the inability to express. Now we can really start getting into a real debate!

When you discuss the right to say things vs the silence it creates we’re getting into a proper debate. We start to head beyond the trivial of offence and start to uncover what is truly structural, pervasive and damaging. When you start to notice is not the words being said but the silence that’s left behind you start to ask questions.

When someone uses free speech to preach hate, who’s voices are getting lost? When debate is framed by the extreme opposites of the argument, who doesn’t get a say? When we begin to really reflect on silence we have to question the mechanisms we hold up as tools of free speech. The free press for instance. Always the darling of free speech but what about the silence it creates, fosters and amplifies?

Who’s voices are missing in corporate media?

What ideas are missing when there’s a vested interest in the status quo?

What hope is there when ultimately someone else decides what the narrative is, who gets the bull horn and for what purposes?

How “free” is the press anyway?

Does a commercial, or even a publicly funded press, actually enforce silence at the expense of promoting free speech?

Comedian Frankie Boyle discusses the consequences of when free speech is equated with offence . Interestingly what he alludes to, without being explicit, is that it actually re-enforces the silence. It creates new ones, enforces old ones to deeply affect our ability to actually discuss and understand. In many ways silence is the preference to free speech when dealing with complex issues:

It’s always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time-consuming process of understanding them.

I understand that offence and decency may be big issues for some people – but I’m with Frankie on this one

We have given taking offence a social status it doesn’t deserve: it’s not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.

By avoiding those difficult conversations we create Silence. As I’ve written before – the cost of free speech shouldn’t be silence. If we’re discussing free speech without paying any attention to silence we’re missing the point.

Digital Mediation – Living in the Digital Age

For some time I’ve been thinking about the current dichotomy that frames modern technology. The attempt to split and compartmentalise “real life” as distinct from the “virtual” – Analogue vs Digital. The reason why I’ve struggled with this concept is because for me that divide has collapsed to the point that it no longer exists. Real life exists across the analogue and digital realms, rather than being the domain of one or the other. Friendships exist, some are proximal and analogue others are mediated across vast distances through digital technology – neither is more real than the other – they simply exist. My work is experienced and expressed in the same way with colleagues spread across a vast swathe of the continent.

More and more of my life is mediated through digital media because I am what they describe as an early adopter. But it’s not as simple as that, the truth is I am an early adopter because these technologies offer real and tangible rewards. I can destroy the tyranny of distance that living and working in regional Australia bring with it. So to the sense of isolation. Fuck the big city, the world is at my finger tips. Wagga Wagga becomes the centre of the world!

The benefits for me aren’t about efficiency or efficacy, they are merely side effects of being more connected, more engaged and more in touch with the world. Digital technology empowered the user so we are no longer the passive consumers of culture by proxy, which is the experience of the Broadcast age of TV and Radio, but active participation. Culture is something I can be part of.

However, digital is still new. It’s still embryonic in the way that it’s still essentially unformed. It lacks definition, formal structure, coded patterns and behaviours, pathways and even roadmaps. Interaction through digital technology is still a proto-culture that still needs to be developed, shaped and formed.

It took centuries to become fluent in translating our oral culture into a written one. It will be the same process to become digitally fluent. We still lack ways and means of embedding and encoding the nuance and subtleties of communication and interaction.

How can you express emotion in a meaningful way? An emoji?

How do you embed the history and individual experience of lived life? A thumbnail avatar?

Yet our digital selves and the lives we lead through the technology are no less real than those of our physical selves. In fact are they actually something more than human? They are ourselves completely untethered from physical constraints – our geography, our bodies, our deformities and handicaps. The potential is there for us to move beyond our grounded and bound bodies. Our digital selves are capable of being transcendent and hyper real as pure expressions of our self and who we wish to be unhindered and untethered.

Yet we lack the ability to translate that which makes us human into our digital selves. Empathy, emotion, intelligence, love – they still require our bodies and brains to codify, understand and respond.

The Failure to Disrupt or Innovate in Education

Below is the genesis of my last assignment for my Graduate Certificate in University Leadership & Management. It’s based on some scribbled notes and it has quite a cynical tone – which does get watered down in the final piece. In the final work I was much more solution focussed and quite optimistic but this, this was the initial seed of an idea and it’s why I wanted to put it here on the blog. This is a starting point and an acknowledgement of where I was. It’s the catalyst that kind of led me down a path of finally being able to identify a reason as to why things kinds of suck at the moment. Doing the course has provided the necessary time and framework to dig a little deeper into why disruption and innovation have failed to take hold within education.

We all seem to be stuck with a single model of what education is – what it looks like, how it’s done and where it’s done.

It’s structured around subjects, courses and degrees.

Consists of teaching through classes, lectures and tutorials

And is provisioned on campus or by correspondence.

Despite 30 years of digital technology and a reform agenda to match, not much has changed. For all the hype, the structure of online is simply the same constrained model in a different medium. Where is the real innovation? What has been really disrupted in education?

I have to acknowledge that there is a fringe that has been experimenting and exploring the possibilities outside this model (DS106 is a good example), but it’s far from the accepted model and further away from anything like mainstream adoption.

If education were a pie then it’s inconsistent and mostly underdone. It might have a nice crust (out on the edges where the fringe lives) but the middle is undercooked – it’s a soggy and mostly in edible mess. For the most part it’s expensive, boring and elitist. Despite all the books, posts and infographics – this is what 21st century education actually looks like.

All those “interactive” resources are really just a layer of navigation overlaid on unwieldy, long and and complex information.

Boring lectures are now delivered via video instead of the classroom, rather than being rethought and restructured to take advantage of the power of video as a narrative tool.

The current emphasis in education is on passive information being presented to students. It creates a model of learning that in reality is dependant on osmosis as the dominant pedagogy. Here’s stuff – if your read it, you will learn. If you watch it, you will learn. If you attend class, you will learn.

The same kinds of issues that lead to obesity are happening in education.

  • an over abundance of food (information) is available
  • a corporate push to consume more “snack sized” portions – high in energy low in any real benefit
  • steeply declining rates of activity
  • play becoming increasing sedentary and sandboxed from reality
  • lack of foundational education in the underlying mechanics, physiology and psychology
  • a system too cumbersome to properly address the underlying issues.

To get innovation into education we need to rethink the model. We need to learn from the past – there are decades of research and we know deep down what works! We just don’t do it! (MOOCs are the perfect example – elearning that harks back to the 90s and simply ignores decades of research and best practice.)

Model around activity, not content.

Interaction not information.

Remodel and rethink learning – it occurs from doing, not osmosis. Move away from the approach “here is content – absorb and regurgitate” as it’s not what learning actually looks like.


In the next couple of weeks I’ll put up the rest of the work I’ve done in the course – which will hopefully give this more context. This is the criticism – there are suggestions and ways forward to come to make this a critique rather than a whine.

The “Older Academic” Trope

I was asked today about the wording I used in a tweet last night

Firstly I agree with Kate’s article 100% – older academics are not the problem. The zombie question of whether unproductive older academics are refusing to make way for the next generation being asked in this post frustratingly masks fundamental problems in the structure, function and measurement of higher education.

What I was commenting by adding “a narrative that emphasises the erosion of soul” wasn’t at all about academics, but the unfolding narrative around universities and higher education around the world. A narrative focused on trying to turn a cultural institution into an economic one. This narrative has led to concepts like productivity and efficiency driving the discussion around how education should adapt to significant cultural changes rather than quality and benefit. This focus on “produfficiency” has allowed governments around the world to defund education over the past couple of decades, while drastically pushing larger enrolments and to then have the audacity to cry about falling standards, literacy and employability. It feels like a conspiracy or at least policy that at its heart is being driven by a neoliberal agenda.

What has happened during this debate is the development of certain tropes that aid the “produfficiency” agenda. One of the most common and convenient is that of “older academic” who is pretty easy to assign characteristics:

  • stuck in the past
  • out of touch
  • can’t use technology
  • don’t contribute
  • have outdated wisdom
  • past their use by date

… and in general are unproductive members of an imaginary elite. In fact here’s a great list of TV Tropes around elders they could borrow from. Tropes build on our own stereotyped and overgeneralised experiences – so there’s alway a nugget of truth in there. But using tropes and playing into them has the effect of allowing the debate to be de-personalised and de-humanised which assists produfficiency by reducing and abstracting real people, actual human beings, into a column on a ledger.

When I made the comment about the “erosion of the soul” it was a about the simple fact that educations contribution to society is the development of knowledge, and knowledge = people. Without people education shifts from being a cultural activity and one that embodies the soul of its community, to something that simply performs an economic function, transactional and ineffectual.

By debating the tropes and feeding the trolls we become distracted from the real issues that are manifest in education – increasing casualisation, insecurity and debt – which point to significant and fundamental problems with how education is measured, funded and recognised.

Update: from twitter just this afternoon these are the kinds of issues that warrant discussion – Student Debt Linked to Worse Health and Less Wealth and Most university undergrads now taught by poorly paid part-timers

Update 2: According to Pearson the proper term isn’t produfficiency but “efficaciousness”. Apologies.

Update 3:  Or this becomes reality for more students

or an industry develops to exploit a generation of young people for profit.

This is great reporting from Jon Oliver:

Balance is an Illusion

This is another one of those posts that I’ve been trying to write for some time. It’s quite philosophical but it’s about something that I, and many others, have been trying to come to terms with for quite a while – Balance.

It’s been inspired by some of the posts from Maha Bali, Kate Bowles and Nick Drengenberg.


For many of us balance has become a pervasive goal in our lives. We talk about it in our work, family, social and personal lives. It is a quest to find that perfect point of equilibrium, where each is given equal weight and we can finally feel whole. The problem is balance is a state so infinitesimal, so fleeting and ephemeral that it is more like a mirage than an object. It is a haze in the distance, the refraction of light and ego on our world around us. An Illusion.

It’s not that balance cannot be achieved, it can, but its fleeting and momentary. Never permanent or pervasive before it’s washed away by the eternal ebb & flow of time and life. Yet we tend to devote so much energy, effort and sacrifice to achieve this momentary sense of balance it seems wasteful and foolish. In turn this quest tends to makes us so profoundly unhappy because despite investing so much of ourselves it so rarely occurs.

The quest for balance plays along with this very human concern of being in control – to create a level playing field on which to live our lives. The natural state of the universe however isn’t balance – its flux. The eternal shift from end to end and one extreme to another. It is the natural state, balance is merely a blip along the way. It seems strange to lust for balance when our innate human strength is the ability to adapt to this flux – to embody and absorb it – which has led to us flourishing as a species. We can move between the seasons, between drought and flood, peace and war, life and death. We can try to disrupt, impede and interfere along the way, but The Flux is the natural state and it will always triumph.

Flux is the natural state where as the point of equilibrium rests on the edge of a razor, balanced on the edge of a razor. If we chase balance to give meaning and happiness to our lives, even if we achieve it, it is only for the briefest, briefest of moments – only seconds or even minutes out of an entire lifetime. Instead, we need to accept that the Flux is the natural state, it is where we live our lives so instead we need to look for our priorities at that particular point in time, adjust to those and seek happiness there.

The quest for balance seems like an attempt to divorce ourselves from the natural state, to try and impose control, but it does’t work. Our lives are based on shifting priorities, thats the flux we live. There are different priorities at the different stages of our lives, on different days of the week and different hours of the day.

Our priorities will always be shifting focus – from family to career to social – and we need to accept that as natural. There will be conflict but there will always be opportunities for happiness if you look for it. The aim should not be to seek out equilibrium as some kind of saviour, but to try and adapt to cope better with the flux – to thrive and survive. Its not that balance isn’t achievable, it is merely a way-point and when you live in the flux those moments of balance become far more lucid and memorable.

Spiritual people, monks, priests and nuns often demonstrate a profound sense of balance but at what cost? They often have to make great sacrifices to attain this balance – family, social connections, human interactions and physical well being. This balance hardly seems real and is so tightly stretched that it will break at any moment and let the flux back in – say by trying to live in the “real world”.

To find happiness we need to embrace the flux and embrace the unknown, the unexpected, the shifts and the changes. We need to take joy in our points of focus day to day, moment to moment. We can learn that we can change priorities from work, to family, to social and personal as we need to and not feel guilt, but instead feel joy.

We shouldn’t feel guilt and shame for not living balanced lives, we don’t need it and we should be able to make peace with that.