Posts Tagged ‘Simon Kidd’

Memes, Subcultures and Social Media

July 10, 2017

Education and the Internet — Part 3

Contents

Introduction
Dawkins’ dodgy dogma
Digital deviation
‘Something Awful’, ‘4chan’ and ‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’
Rise of the alt-right
Social-media minefield
The joke’s gone too far
Conclusion

Introduction

In Part 2 of this series on ‘Education and the Internet’ I focussed on some problems with Wikipedia, in particular how a combination of administrative protocols and web anonymity facilitates a preponderance of sectarian influences on certain articles. In the case in which I was personally involved, there was also the factor of trolling, a decidedly abhorrent feature of the Web 2.0 environment. In this part I have turned my attention to another Web 2.0 development, one with a broader relevance than Wikipedia, and which also incorporates a trolling component.

I am referring to the ubiquitous ‘internet meme’, which doesn’t attract the same sort of news headlines as other online problems: cyber war, cyber terrorism, ransomware attacks, election interference, news manipulation, cyber bullying, and so on. The latter are serious issues, and rightly subjects of concern, but their effects on most people are either indirect or infrequent. The internet meme, by contrast, is more likely to be a part of many people’s everyday experience, particularly if they use social media. Probably every Facebook user is familiar with the endlessly re-posted images, which are often humorous, cute or ‘motivational’. Why would anyone compare this seemingly innocuous practice with the sort of issues listed above? What harm could there be, right?

Some may be familiar with the origin of the word ‘meme’ in a 1976 publication. I’ll hazard a guess, however, that few would be aware of the connection between the internet-meme phenomenon and several online subcultures with dubious reputations. Furthermore, although some media organizations (e.g. The Guardian) have recently started to shine a spotlight on the controversial content to be found on social-media sites like Facebook, analysis of the links between the above-mentioned subcultures, memes, and social-networking groups attracts little, if any, publicity.

I first became alert to Facebook ‘meme groups’ early in 2016, and in April of that year I posted a message indicating my concern about some of the groups that were using the social-media site as a platform. I wondered at that time whether the parents among my Facebook contacts were even aware of the nature of some of these groups and their associated pages. For a while the topic was off my radar, but recently it became a topic of discussion in the school where I teach, and I decided to investigate further. My research resulted in a better understanding of the background to the Facebook meme-group culture, which I present below.

First, however, a point about terminology. The word ‘meme’ itself is neutral, just like the word ‘joke’. There’s nothing inherently offensive about a joke. Many jokes are simply funny; some make a point about something, perhaps a political one (e.g. satire); some might be a bit ‘edgy’; yet others would be generally considered in poor taste or, worse, downright offensive. As with jokes, so also with memes. It’s a spectrum, and the dividing lines between acceptable, edgy, in poor taste, and downright offensive, vary from person to person. I think it’s fair to say, however, that most people would recognize there is a spectrum, ranging from perfectly acceptable to downright objectionable. We might wonder at someone who collapses such distinctions and sees no difference between the two extremes.

Dawkins’ dodgy dogma

The word ‘meme’ pre-dates its internet incarnation by several decades. It was coined by Oxford evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Like its biological counterpart, the gene, a carrier of heritable traits between generations of an organism, Dawkins conceived of the meme as a carrier of cultural information, such as an idea, a symbol, or a practice. Such cultural units are transferred from mind to mind, and in this sense either survive or die out. Successful memes, therefore, have survival value. Like genes, they are ‘selfish’, using minds as ‘hosts’, just as a virus uses an organism as a host. Dawkins derived his coinage from the ancient Greek concept of mimesis, from which we get words like ‘mime’, ‘mimicry’ and ‘imitate’.

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. (The Selfish Gene)

Unsurprisingly, Dawkins’ theory of memes has been the subject of astute criticism, with one critic describing it as ‘pseudoscientific dogma’ (see ‘Memetics: A Dangerous Idea’). To me the concept of meme seems a crude version of ‘sign’, in the semiotic sense, a study of which was part of my postgraduate research in philosophy (see the section on ‘Semiotics’ in my earlier post: An Educational Autobiography). A useful summary of the development of the meme concept, including some inherent problems with it, is James Gleick’s ‘What Defines a Meme?’, which is an extract adapted from his 2011 book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.

My concern here, however, is not with meme theory as such, but rather the social phenomenon of internet memes, and in particular the online groups that employ them relentlessly. For this analysis, the coherence or otherwise of the theory is irrelevant, and it would make no difference if the word ‘meme’ had never been invented.

Digital deviation

In its transition to the Web, the term has undergone an evolutionary development of its own. The internet usage carries the more restricted sense of ‘an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry or for comedic purposes, from person to person via the Internet’ (Wikipedia). Images, usually with some form of text, are probably the most common permutation (see image macro). Standard forms have developed, with associated protocols. Typical examples of internet-meme jokes are ‘Y U NO’ and ‘Condescending Wonka’.

Y U NO

‘Y U NO’ meme

One thing to note about these is that the link between the image and the text is usually tenuous: just about any text could be used, ranging from relatively benign (the examples given here) to strongly offensive.

Condescending Wonka

‘Condescending Wonka’ meme

Not all memes are jokes. Animals feature prominently, and, while sometimes amusing, they are more often ‘cute’ as in the following example (which also demonstrates the popular animated ‘gif’ format):

Cute

Bear cub playing with wolf cub: cute animals are common memes

Sticking with animals, we have the ‘pet shaming’ series:

Pet shaming

And it would be negligent not to include some reference to the most famous cat on the Internet, ‘Grumpy Cat’ (real name: Tardar Sauce), whose fame can be traced to a September 2012 Reddit post by her owner’s brother. The cat’s peculiar physiognomy, caused by feline dwarfism and an underbite, gives her a permanently scowling expression:

Grumpy Cat

‘Grumpy Cat’ meme

Yet other memes depend on incidental photographs, often amusing, whether staged or fortuitous:

So I turned into a toad last night

‘So I turned into a toad last night’

All that’s needed is a clever caption:

Instructions were unclear

‘Instructions were unclear’

One of the most famous photograph memes is indicative of a further development in this rapidly evolving social phenomenon. ‘Bad Luck Brian’ is a goofy photo from a 2005-2006 school yearbook. The picture is of Kyle Craven, a class clown and self-confessed prankster, who deliberately dressed and posed in order to create a joke image. The principal was unimpressed and forced Kyle to sit for the picture retakes, although he (Kyle) later persuaded someone on the yearbook staff to include both images. Kyle was forced to surrender the photo, but not before he and his friend, Ian Davies, had scanned and saved it. It was Davies who posted the image to Reddit in January 2012, naming it ‘Bad Luck Brian’ and including the caption ‘Takes driving test – gets first DUI’ (Driving Under the Influence). It was an instant hit, and ‘Bad Luck Brian’ became a magnet for every conceivable bad-luck caption.

Bad Luck Brian

Kyle Craven as ‘Bad Luck Brian’

Reddit fame was only the beginning:

Before long, Bad Luck Brian was an Internet sensation. His face appeared on Facebook, blogs and advertisements. T-shirts with his photo were sold at Wal-Mart and Hot Topic. Companies made Bad Luck Brian paperweights and Bad Luck Brian stuffed animals. He was flown to Internet conventions across the country. People like me, who barely knew him in high school, bragged about his photo’s popularity. (‘Anatomy of a meme: The real story of Bad Luck Brian, his viral class portrait and the fleeting nature of online fame’, National Post, 6 January 2015)

As the case of ‘Bad Luck Brian’ indicates, it didn’t take long for commercial interests to realize the marketing opportunities presented by internet memes. ‘Grumpy Cat’ garnered similar attention, not to mention being featured in mainstream media (see ‘Grumpy Cat’ on Wikipedia). There are now many websites offering advice on the use of memes for marketing purposes, e.g. ‘4 Things You Should Know Before You Start Using Memes on Social Media’.

Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and many of them can be found on websites like ‘quickmeme’ and ‘knowyourmeme’. Those provided here demonstrate that there is nothing inherently objectionable about the content of internet memes. Other aspects of the practice, however, are legitimate topics for discussion: its potential for time wasting; an occasional tendency to misinformation (especially quotes attributed to celebrity geniuses like Einstein); and perhaps a general trivialization and dumbing-down of culture. These topics will re-emerge in future posts in this series.

Furthermore, I have chosen some particularly ‘tame’ examples, and there are definitely ‘edgier’ ones, depending on the viewer’s perspective. The phenomenon becomes problematic when it goes beyond what might be termed ‘common decency’. Here the internet meme seems to cross a line that only a minority are willing to traverse. Moreover, the memes themselves are only a part of the problem. At this point, the context in which they are being shared becomes just as salient.

‘Something Awful’, ‘4chan’ and ‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’

The story of the internet meme is inseparable from the online subcultures known as Something Awful, 4chan, and Encyclopedia Dramatica.

‘Something Awful’ (SA) was created by Richard ‘Lowtax’ Kyanka in 1999, and is the source for the Slender Man meme (regarding which, see the Waukesha stabbing and other incidents). Something Awful was described in a January 2008 Wired article as a collection of members-only message forums:

an online humor site dedicated to a brand of scorching irreverence and gross-out wit that, in its eight years of existence, has attracted a fanatical and almost all-male following. Strictly governed by its founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, the site boasts more than 100,000 registered Goons (as members proudly call themselves) and has spawned a small diaspora of spinoff sites. Most noticeable is the anime fan community 4chan, with its notorious /b/ forum and communities of ‘/b/tards.’ Flowing from this vast ecosystem are some of the Web’s most infectious memes and catchphrases (‘all your base are belong to us’ was popularized by Something Awful, for example; 4chan gave us lolcats) and online gaming’s most exasperating wiseasses. (Julian Dibbell, ‘Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World’, Wired, 18 January 2008)

‘4chan’ is an ‘imageboard’ website that was launched in October 2003 by Christopher Poole, then a 15-year-old student from New York City, and a regular participant on the SA forums. Poole intended 4chan to be an American counterpart to the popular Japanese Futaba Channel (‘2chan’) imageboard, and a place to discuss Japanese ‘manga’ and ‘anime’. He encouraged users from the SA subforum, ‘Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse’, to discuss anime on his website. In its earliest days, 4chan had only two boards: ‘/a/ – Anime/General’ and ‘/b/ – Anime/Random’. The latter was the first board to be created, and is, according to Wikipedia, ‘by far 4chan’s most popular board, with 30% of site traffic’ (retrieved 4 July 2017). More boards were added over time, and /b/ was eventually renamed to ‘/b/ – Random’, or simply ‘random’. The ‘random’ board has minimal regulation and its notoriety is attested by numerous sources, including the Wired article cited above (for more, see the ‘/b/’ subsection of the Wikipedia ‘4chan’ article). A 2008 New York Times article (worth reading in its entirety) contains the following description of /b/:

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand. (Mattathias Schwartz, ‘The Trolls Among Us’, New York Times, 3 August 2008)

According to Wikipedia, /b/ is the source of many internet memes, some of which are listed in the ‘Internet memes’ subsection.

‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’ (ED) was founded in 2004 by Sherrod DeGrippo. Wikipedia describes it as a ‘satirical website’ that ‘celebrates a subversive “trolling culture”, and documents Internet memes, culture, and events, such as mass organized pranks, trolling events, “raids”, large-scale failures of Internet security, and criticism of Internet communities which are accused of self-censorship in order to garner prestige or positive coverage from traditional and established media outlets’ (accessed 4 July 2017). Julian Dibbell, in a 2009 Wired article, situates EA in the context of ‘trolling’ (‘the most obnoxious innovation that architecture [i.e. the Internet] ever produced’): ‘Flamingly racist and misogynist content lurks throughout, all of it calculated to offend, along with links to eye-gougingly horrific images of mutilation, [and] sexual perversity’ (‘The Assclown Offensive: How to Enrage the Church of Scientology’, Wired, 21 September 2009).

As the Wired articles make clear, a paradoxical attitude pervades the subcultures of SA, 4chan and ED, which is a seriousness about not taking anything, including the Internet, seriously. Everything is for ‘the lulz’ (a corruption of ‘lols’, the plural form of ‘lol’ or ‘laugh out loud’). For those who haven’t come across the expression, ‘doing it for the lulz’ means doing something ‘for the laughs’, and the laughs are typically at someone else’s expense. This ambivalent stance appears to be the case whether the activity is online, or real-world events orchestrated by Anonymous, the actvist group spawned by 4chan, with strong links to ED.

The association of the internet meme with these subcultures helps explain the attitudes and ‘banter’ encountered in the meme groups on social-networking sites like Facebook.

Rise of the alt-right

This story would be incomplete without some reference to the so-called ‘alt-right’, an umbrella term for those who identify themselves in opposition to both neo-liberal and traditional conservative values. Emerging over the course of the last decade, the alt-right unashamedly promotes views that are white supremacist, racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, antifeminist, misogynistic, and homophobic. (See ‘Psychologists surveyed hundreds of alt-right supporters. The results are unsettling.’)

More significant for the thesis I am developing here, however, is that the roots of the alt-right lie in 4chan, from which it derives its penchant for expressing views in the form of extremist memes. In a Conversation article from 20 July, Jason Hannan points out that the American alt-right took their liberal adversaries by surprise, when the latter, particularly under the tech-savvy President Obama, had

arrogantly assumed that the future belonged to them — that social media was the terrain of a younger generation of liberal hipsters fluent in irony, memes and hashtags — all the while assuming that conservatives were a largely clueless generation of technologically challenged old people scarcely able to make sense of the exotic world of “the Facebooks,” “the Twitters” and “the Snap Chaps”. (‘Trolling ourselves to death in the age of Trump’)

Perhaps the ultimate indication of alt-right ascendancy was the election of Donald Trump, in Hannan’s words ‘a man whose irreverence toward liberal propriety and whose absolute lack of principle made him the perfect instrument against the enemy’. John Cassidy of The New Yorker suggests that the US now has at its helm ‘an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily’ (‘Donald Trump will go down in history as the Troll-in-Chief’).

Hannan claims that one result of this has been the normalization of trolling:

The problem is that trolling has gone mainstream. It is no longer confined to the darker corners of the internet. The president of the United States is a troll. It is not a wild exaggeration to say that American public discourse is being recreated before our eyes in the light of Twitter.

We are witnessing the birth of a new political game, in which one of the primary moves is the act of trolling. Politicians now routinely troll each other online. Citizens troll politicians and politicians troll them back. The common denominator in all this white noise is the logic of the insult: whoever insults hardest wins.

He also makes an interesting theoretical point, an extension of the thesis proposed by Neil Postman in his pre-internet Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985):

Taking his cue from the media theorist Marshall McLuhan [of ‘the medium is the message’ fame], Postman argued that public discourse had been recreated in the image of television. American democracy had become a form of entertainment — equal parts sitcom, soap opera, and tabloid TV — in which the trivial and the superficial had come to hold greater persuasive power than the logical and the factual.

Television, Postman claimed, offered nothing less than a ‘philosophy of rhetoric,’ a theory of persuasion according to which truth is decided by entertainment value. The more entertaining a public figure, the more persuasive the message. Postman, of course, wrote in a more innocent time, the age of Ronald Reagan. Would that he had written in the age of Donald Trump.

We can extend Postman’s argument about television to social media. If television turned politics into entertainment, then social media might be said to have turned it into a giant high school, replete with cool kids, losers and bullies.

He concludes his article with the observation: ‘If Postman were alive today, he might be concerned that we are not so much amusing, as trolling ourselves to death.’

Social-media minefield

Like many others, my earliest encounters with internet memes were of the generally innocuous variety described in the ‘Digital deviation’ section above. These appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, posted by people within my own circle of contacts. They were frequently amusing and I habitually re-posted them, thereby facilitating their viral spread. Facebook procedures make sharing easy, and the default setting is to share with one’s entire circle, which for many individuals amounts to hundreds of people (some younger users number their contacts in the thousands). The process preserves a link to the originating poster, though for memes it’s unnecessary to follow that link since the typical composite of image and text is visible in its entirety.

Early in 2016, one of my contacts shared a meme that caught my attention for some reason. I followed the link to the source and encountered something unexpected. Here was a publicly visible Facebook page with posts that were frequently objectionable for one reason or another. This led to another discovery: there are thousands of such user pages on Facebook. A lot of them have ‘meme’ in their titles, such as ‘Dank Memeology’ and ‘Meme Extreme’, while others, like ‘Filthy Frank’, although dispensing with the defining noun, leave no doubt about the owner’s posting preferences. Postings on these pages range from the merely puerile to the explicitly racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, pornographic, and ‘disturbing’. My contact was following about five hundred of them.

Later I discovered that, in addition to the openly-visible ‘pages’, which require only a button-click to follow and whose historical postings are visible to anyone, there are also member-only groups based on meme sharing. Membership in these is by request. Entry prerequisites may vary, but the bar is likely to be low. Age requirements can easily be circumvented anyway, since Facebook doesn’t verify user age at the time of initial account set-up. In addition to the ‘closed’ groups that still show up in Facebook searches, there are also invisible groups that no one can see, membership in which is by invitation only.

Another common adjective, applied to ‘pages’ and ‘groups’ alike is ‘banter’. A search for this key term on Facebook reveals pages and groups devoted to almost every imaginable topic. These pages and groups also tend to favour the meme-type post.

Apart from ‘pages’ and ‘groups’, there is another Facebook feature that has been adopted by the meme-based group, and that is ‘chat’. Chat uses Facebook’s instant-messaging service, simply called ‘Messenger’, which comes built-in with the browser version, but is also available as a separate app for mobile devices. Chat groups can have the same sort of titles as pages and groups (e.g. ‘Edgy Memes’), but this doesn’t mean that membership in the chat group is the same as the general group with that title. Individuals are ‘added’ to a chat group by an admin who selects them from his or her own list of contacts. Chat is more ephemeral than pages and groups. Chats don’t show up in Facebook searches, and you can’t tell from your own Facebook account whether any of your contacts is in a group chat, unless you are also in that chat of course (although identities can be disguised in chat through the use of ‘nicknames’).

What is true of Facebook is doubtless true of other social media sites, although Facebook is one of the largest, with about two billion monthly active users. Many of the meme-based groups, including ‘Filthy Frank’, have their own YouTube channels.

It is important to remember that there is nothing inherently objectionable about ‘meme’ or ‘banter’ pages and groups. Many are devoted to completely innocent interests. My extended family has a Facebook group, and it’s a great way to share photos and generally keep in touch. Some pages and groups are devoted to political causes; others are based on national, ethnic, or religious identity; yet others are concerned with special interests, such as sport, art, or philosophy; and the list goes on.

That notwithstanding, it remains troubling that there is so much objectionable content distributed across social-media pages and groups. What exactly is the nature of this content, and how does it relate to the well-known memes pictured above? In terms of process, there is no difference: the most extreme and objectionable memes are made in exactly the same way as the examples provided, generally involving the association of an image or short video with some text. Just how objectionable some of them are will become clear in what follows.

The offending categories listed above (racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, pornographic, and ‘disturbing’) refer to ‘generic’ posts, i.e. not targeting any particular individual. It doesn’t stop there, however, as specific individuals are also liable to be victimized. If your photo is available online, then you are a potential target. Both generic and specific types can be extremely objectionable, as several years of investigative journalism have demonstrated.

As early as 2011, The Guardian newspaper reported that Facebook was refusing to remove pages containing rape jokes, on the grounds that a rude joke wouldn’t ‘get you thrown out of your local pub’ (Lizzy Davies, ‘Facebook refuses to take down rape joke pages’, The Guardian, 1 October 2011). This was followed three days later by another piece questioning the analogy with pub humour:

By refusing to take these pages down, and by resorting to such a ridiculous and quite frankly offensive ‘rude joke’ analogy to justify their decision, Facebook executives have made absolutely clear where they stand on the issue of gender hate crime. It’s fine to post hateful or threatening content on their site, just as it’s fine to post content that incites violence. Well, as long as it’s primarily aimed at women, that is. (Cath Elliott, ‘Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it’s directed at women’, The Guardian, 4 October 2011)

The campaign against content endorsing rape and domestic violence continued, and in May 2013 The Huffington Post reported that high-profile companies were being urged to boycott advertising on the social media site, in the face of its continued refusal to remove objectionable content. According to the article, the Women Action Media (WAM) group, one of the organizations calling for a boycott, was maintaining a cache of offensive material, including:

a photograph of singer Rihanna’s bloodied and beaten face, captioned with ‘Chris Brown’s Greatest Hits’. It also features an image of a woman lying in a pool of blood, with the words ‘I like her for her brains’ emblazoned across it … Further examples include a picture of a bruised and battered woman entitled ‘WHOREMOUTH – shut it when men are talking’ and one of a man holding a rag over a woman’s mouth, captioned ‘Does this smell like chloroform to you?’. (Sara C Nelson, ‘#FBrape: Will Facebook Heed Open Letter Protesting ‘Endorsement Of Rape & Domestic Violence’?’, The Huffington Post, 28 May 2013)

The WAM cache is maintained here (contains graphic content).

The following day, The Guardian reported that Facebook had been forced to take action against ‘hate speech’ on its pages, as a result of the campaign against ‘supposedly humorous content endorsing rape and domestic violence’:

The company said on Tuesday it would update its policies on hate speech, increase accountability of content creators and train staff to be more responsive to complaints, marking a victory for women’s rights activists. ‘We need to do better – and we will,’ it said in a statement. (Rory Carroll, ‘Facebook gives way to campaign against hate speech on its pages’, The Guardian, 29 May 2013).

Fast forward to March 2017, when The Guardian reported that the British government was calling on social media companies ‘to do more to expunge extremist material from the internet’. The main target was ‘the easy availability of material promoting violent extremism online’, with Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, claiming that ‘extremist material online was “corrupting and polluting” many people’ (Andrew Sparrow and Alex Hern, ‘Internet firms must do more to tackle online extremism, says No 10’, The Guardian, 25 March 2017).

Also in March, the tabloid press exposed some of the more shocking examples of meme-based trolling, where victims of terrorist attacks and their families were mocked. The exposé by The Sun Online refers to the members of so-called ‘ghost’ (i.e. invisible) groups:

Jokes are made about Madeleine McCann, terror victims and disabilities – with no topic out of bounds. Groups are moderated by ‘admins’, who can remove sick content – but instead act as ringleaders. An admin of ‘Pure Banter 18+’ last week shared a sick joke about PC Keith Palmer, who lost his life in the Westminster terror attack … Jokes about slavery and racist slurs are also common, with users requesting memes about dark topics. In the ‘Banter18+’ group this week, one member asked for ‘all your best rape memes’ and received scores of sickening posts. Other topics have included Robin Williams’ death, 9/11 and child abuse. (Ellie Flynn, ‘Antisocial Network’, The Sun, 29 March 2017)

On 30 March, the same source reported that groups that had been removed as a result of the previous day’s article had been set up again within ten minutes, with members mocking The Sun (see Ellie Flynn, ‘Who Can Stop Them?’, The Sun, 30 March 2017). On 31 March, the Daily Mail carried a similar story.

On 2 May, The Sun reported on ‘The Bathroom’ banter group (180,490 members), in which cash was being offered for the ‘most f****d up memes and videos’, including ones mocking Harvey Price, the disabled son of Katie Price. (Ellie Flynn, ‘Sick Facebook troll groups are offering MONEY to the nastiest bullies who taunt disabled kids including Harvey Price’). Later that month, ‘Pure Banter’ was reported to be still in action, with some users making jokes about the bombing at the Manchester Arena. The report added that other members of the group refused to endorse the activities of the trolls. Apparently this was going too far for some. (Ellie Flynn and John Shammas, ‘Vile Facebook “banter” groups have been mocking the Manchester bombing victims since last week’s atrocity’, The Sun, 31 May 2017).

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in May The Guardian announced The Facebook Files, a series drawing together the burgeoning investigation into the social-media giant. One focus is the burden experienced by Facebook’s ‘moderators’, who simply cannot cope with the volume of material being uploaded. Another concerns the company’s dilemma in trying to reconcile free speech with social responsibility.

These files raise legitimate questions about the content Facebook does not tolerate, and the speed with which it deals with it. But just as importantly they raise questions about the material it does allow – which some people may consider cruel, insulting, offensive, sexist and racist. (Nick Hopkins and Julia Carrie Wong, ‘Has Facebook become a forum for misogyny and racism?’, The Guardian, 22 May 2017)

One of the articles included in ‘The Files’ goes into some detail about ‘Facebook’s secret rules and guidelines for deciding what its 2 billion users can post on the site’:

They illustrate difficulties faced by executives scrabbling to react to new challenges such as ‘revenge porn’ – and the challenges for moderators, who say they are overwhelmed by the volume of work, which means they often have ‘just 10 seconds’ to make a decision. (Nick Hopkins, ‘Revealed: Facebook’s internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence’, The Guardian, 22 May 2017)

Given such restrictions, it is hardly surprising that the focus is often on ‘credible violence’. Several of ‘The Files’ deal with the ‘mission impossible’ faced by moderators, as well as the specific threat posed by online extremists.

Before proceeding, there is a final point to make about language in the meme-based Facebook groups. Terms like ‘banter’ disguise the real nature of the discourse that predominates in many of these groups, and especially in chat. There is nothing playful or friendly in the interactions between people who, more often than not, have never even met. Nor will you find the sort of inspirational quotes that do the rounds on Facebook newsfeeds, whether accurately attributed or not. The language in meme chat-groups tends to be denigratory. An indication of this is evident from the abbreviations that are frequently employed, for example ‘kys’ (kill yourself), ‘smd’ (suck my d**k), ‘gfy’ (go f**k yourself) and ‘stfu’ (shut the f**k up) – see Net Lingo. Such discourse is more akin to the trolling mentality, which is facilitated by internet anonymity.

A revealing indication of the extent to which the dark side of meme culture has pervaded society was reported by The Washington Post a little over a month ago (see Samantha Schmidt, ‘Harvard withdraws 10 acceptances for “offensive” memes in private group chat’). It concerned a group of students who had been offered places at Harvard, and for whom an official Facebook group had been set up (The Harvard College Class of 2021), allowing admitted students ‘to meet classmates, ask questions and prepare for their first semester’. About a hundred of the incoming freshman class used the official group to create ‘a messaging group where students could share memes about popular culture — a growing trend on the Internet among students at elite colleges’.

But then, the exchanges took a dark turn, according to an article published in the Harvard Crimson … Some of the group’s members decided to form an offshoot group in which students could share obscene, ‘R-rated’ memes, a student told the Crimson. The founders of the messaging group demanded that students post provocative memes in the main group chat to gain admittance to the smaller group.

The students in the spinoff group exchanged memes and images ‘mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children,’ sometimes directing jokes at specific ethnic or racial groups, the Crimson reported. One message ‘called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time”‘ while other messages quipped that ‘abusing children was sexually arousing,’ according to images of the chat described by the Crimson.

University officials got wind of the R-rated sub-group, and, following an investigation, the institution revoked its offers to ten of the offending students, on the basis that ‘the university reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission if the admitted student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character,” among other conditions’. The decision provoked mixed reactions, divided along free-speech-versus-social-responsibility lines. The newspaper pointedly observed:

The university’s decision to rescind the students’ acceptance to Harvard underscores the dangers of social media posts — public or private — among prospective college students. According to Kaplan Test Prep, which surveyed more than 350 college admissions officers, 35 percent of admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students.

The joke’s gone too far

According to Dawkins’ original conception, memes ‘selfishly’ use human brains to replicate themselves. In other words, we are not the actors in this evolutionary drama, but rather the passive victims of the meme imperative to survive and reproduce. Ultimately, therefore, we are not responsible for these cultural packages of meaning (symbols, theories, practices, and so on). Their existence is independent of individual human beings, since we are merely temporary ‘hosts’.

The analogy with the ‘selfish gene’ is ultimately dissatisfying, however, and leads to self-contradiction. Dawkins’ theory evinces a modern variation of the ancient paradox of philosophical relativism, since its universal application undermines its own objectivity. In other words, Dawkins’ theory of memes, if true, is itself a meme; but if it is a meme, selfishly using our brains to replicate itself, then how could we ever know that it is true, that it corresponds to some objective state of affairs?

Like all paradoxes, this one points to an important philosophical question: to what extent do we control our ideas, and to what extent are we controlled by them? Dawkins was perhaps aware of the contradiction at the heart of his theory, since he appears to allow us some measure of control over the mental parasites. He concluded the original Selfish Gene with the following: ‘We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.

In this connection, it is instructive to examine the writings of another scientist, with credentials at least as impeccable as Dawkins’. I refer to neuropsychologist, neurobiologist and Nobel laureate, Roger Sperry (1913-1994). Sperry opposed the prevailing materialist reductionism of twentieth-century science, and propounded instead a ‘mentalist’ theory in which mind plays a causal role in brain processes, taking its place in a hierarchy extending from the subatomic, through intermediary levels, to the cultural. Causes necessarily vary from level to level and, therefore, an explanation appropriate at one level will not be appropriate at another.

In 1965, over ten years before Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, Sperry authored a paper entitled ‘Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values’ (later included in his 1983 book, Science and Moral Priority). In keeping with his mentalist outlook, Sperry argues for the potency of ‘ideas’ in the brain:

Near the apex of this command system in the brain – to return to more humanistic concerns – we find ideas. Man over the chimpanzee has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed here, the causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. (Science and Moral Priority,
p.36)

At first glance, this almost seems like a proto-meme theory, with ‘ideas’ playing the same role as ‘memes’ in Dawkins’ later scheme. The comparison is superficial, however, because Sperry incorporates the exercise of individual agency in the process. Ideas are only part of the psychic furniture of the brain, along with other ‘mental forces’. In his opposition to a thoroughgoing physical determinism, Sperry does allow for a moderate psychic determinism: cerebral operations are not without antecedent causes, but those causes are not compelling. Potentially included among the causes are memories of previous episodes in an individual’s life, and also the repository of collective experience that is civilization. Such causes can perhaps be better described as ‘influences’. (See op cit, p.39-41)

To my mind, Sperry’s theory more accurately reflects our ordinary human experience than does Dawkins’ dodgy dogma, and this has important implications for how we conceive of memes in general, and internet memes in particular. The mentalist approach implies a measure of responsibility for the memes we generate and disseminate, and this burden cannot be shirked.

In a 2013 Washington Post article (‘Have Internet memes lost their meaning?’), Dominic Basulto takes stock of Dawkins’ ‘extraordinarily clever idea’ as it has adapted to the Internet. Reflecting on things like ‘lolcat’, he makes no reference to the dark side of internet memes, and merely speculates that memes ‘no longer transmit intelligent ideas – they only transmit banality’.

I would venture further and say that the internet meme represents a dumbing-down of culture. After all, if you fill your mind (and your time) with banality, then there is simply no room for the great ideas that form our cultural inheritance. By this I don’t mean that we should ‘consume’ culture for its own sake. By exposing ourselves to the great cultural creations of the past, including literature, the visual arts and music, we rise above our biological nature and, ultimately, develop character.

Banality may be a problem in itself, but it is hardly the most pressing one. When we consider the darker side of internet memes, as outlined above, we are confronting a more serious issue. As I said at the beginning, when it comes to humour there may be varying degrees of acceptability, but most of us would agree that at some point a line is crossed and we have left ‘acceptable’ behind and entered ‘objectionable’ territory. Why does this matter? I would say that it is because the darkest memes pander to the lowest parts of our nature, where sensuality and aggression are to be found. These primitive impulses have always been with us, to different degrees, but the countervailing forces of civilization have served, as a minimum, to keep them in check, and ideally to transform them. Left unchecked, such tendencies can become magnified into gross sensuality, cruelty and sadism.

The propagation of such destructive tendencies via social media, in the guise of humour, is a cause for genuine concern. The whimsical nature of many familiar internet memes can downplay the toxicity of others. It is a process of trivialization. This toxicity then spreads virally through the entire medium, with an accompanying risk of normalization and desensitization, especially when the consumers are young and still forming an identity. The internet troll represents the nadir of this social phenomenon, and while most of us would not identify with such sociopathic traits, to vary degrees the discourse and practices of trolling have pervaded the culture of internet memes.

When I recently discussed the issue of ‘dark’ memes with Grade-11 Philosophy students at a boys’ school, there seemed to be a general dismissal of the problem, summed up by one boy when he said that ‘no one takes those things seriously, even the people who post them’. In other words, it’s all ‘for the lulz’. Another boy responded to the first by saying that you can’t excuse any offensive content simply by labelling it as a ‘meme’. I added to this objection, by referring to a point made by Umberto Eco (1932-2016) in his 1967 article, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ (published in the 1986 collection Faith in Fakes, later republished as Travels in Hyperreality). Eco pointed out that messages are interpreted at the destination, not at the source. This means that, regardless of someone’s intentions in sending a message, its interpretation will have more to do with the frame of reference of the person receiving it. This means that the interpretation of dark memes is beyond the control of the poster, and ultimately is unpredictable. Doing it ‘for the lulz’ amounts to a form of social irresponsibility, and those who provide a platform for the activity have a share in the accountability.

One suspects that those who post objectionable material ‘for the lulz’ would not be at all happy if the ‘lulz’ were at their expense – if, for instance, a mocking meme incorporating their photo was shared across the Internet, and hence visible to their peers; or if their family received phone calls from anonymous trolls making fun of a personal tragedy. Whether sociopaths have an abundance or a scarcity of empathy, its nature is perverted in their case, and yet an appropriate quality of feeling is required for a functional moral life. One role of civilization is to cultivate this, and I suspect that the aggressive, mocking nature of the internet troll undermines it. The internet meme, so easily generated and disseminated, is a major vehicle for this undesirable tendency.

In his 2008 article, ‘The Trolls Among Us’ (cited above), Mattathias Schwartz suggested: ‘It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural.’ This may once have been true of the college frat-society, but the Internet doesn’t work like that, a situation fuelled by technology and faulty age- and identity-checks. The malice is not contained within the virtual walls of an internet ghetto. It is all too clear that it spills over into real-life actions and harm, as attested by many of the examples given in the newspaper articles above.

In one of the Guardian articles from May (‘Revealed: Facebook’s internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence’), Nick Hopkins drew attention to the following astute observation by Sarah T Roberts, an expert on content moderation:

It’s one thing when you’re a small online community with a group of people who share principles and values, but when you have a large percentage of the world’s population and say ‘share yourself’, you are going to be in quite a muddle. Then when you monetise that practice you are entering a disaster situation.

The same point was made by Geoff White, the reporter on a recent episode of BBC Radio’s File on 4 programme (‘Online Grooming’, originally broadcast on 13 June), albeit in a different context:

Shouldn’t the social-media companies themselves be doing more to protect children? After all, Facebook alone has almost two billion users worldwide; many of them are young people, valuable targets for the advertisers who fill the tech company’s coffers. Social-media sites are happy to capitalize on youngsters’ likes, shares, and messages, but are they getting the message when it comes to online grooming? (2:35)

Although primarily concerned with the worrying problem of online grooming, it is perhaps worth noting one complaint made by young people that is mentioned in the programme: the use of personal content by third parties, in a manner unwanted by the original poster of the content. This was reported by Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield:

My starting point is that the Internet is a force for good, but it wasn’t built for children. And a third of the users of the Internet are children, so we need to make special accommodation, if you like, for them. Now what they told me was that they often found themselves coming across content that they didn’t expect and they thought was nasty or distasteful; they sometimes found their own postings being used in ways that they weren’t happy with … There were children who found photos of themselves that had been used in other ways, children who had found content that they found very disturbing, and they felt, in the main, nothing was done about it. (5:48)

The allegation that social-media companies have difficulty policing the content on their sites occurred in several of the journalistic sources cited above. It was also made in the File on 4 programme. The source of the problem is twofold: burgeoning subscriber numbers, on the one hand, and the exceptional legal circumstances applying to social-media companies, on the other. Jenny Wiltshire, a criminal defence solicitor from law firm Hickman and Rose, described the situation as follows:

Social networks come within the regime of hosting companies, which are covered by an EC directive, which gives them a lot of protection. The directive essentially says that if the social network doesn’t have actual knowledge of unlawful activity, then they can’t be liable either criminally or in civil damages. It’s only once they are made aware and they are provided information to say that unlawful activity has happened that they are under an obligation to act expeditiously to remove that material or disable the access to that information. So that’s resulted in social networks acting reactively rather than proactively to the problem. (34:32)

If that is the case with ‘unlawful’ activity, then we can only suppose that companies like Facebook will be even less proactive when it comes to the grey area of questionable content that we have been discussing in this post.


 

Conclusion

The law offers a certain level of protection against some extremes of behaviour on social-media sites. In addition, social-media companies have guidelines that discourage certain behaviour, although the bar may be set quite low, and in any case their ability to enforce the guidelines is in question. Beyond such formal provisions, it remains within the power of individuals to decide what is acceptable. No one is compelled to visit websites containing objectionable content. No one is compelled to join adult banter groups. And no one is compelled to pass on ‘edgy’ or ‘dark’ memes. In the case of children and teenagers, the responsibility lies with their guardians to become aware of their online activity and make decisions about what is acceptable.

The issues can seem complex. First, there is privacy, by which I mean the ability of an individual to control what is made public. This is a difficult one for celebrities, whose lives are often subject to media scrutiny. But everyone has a right to some degree of control over their information, including images. Some private individuals find themselves in the media spotlight through no choice of their own, such as when they are victims of tragedy. They are rightly enraged when that exposure is exploited by anonymous individuals with sociopathic tendencies. We should also be enraged on their behalf.

Then there is free speech, which is always counterbalanced by social responsibility. Getting the balance right is a perennial political, and legal, problem. There is a role for legitimate protest, for criticism, and for satire. But ‘hate speech’ and harassment infringe other liberties and should not be tolerated, and they cannot be excused on the grounds that they are ‘for the lulz’.

If there is any truth in the old adage that ‘you are what you eat’, then perhaps it is also true that ‘you are what you attend to’. If it is possible to become ill through an unhealthy diet, then might it also be possible to malnourish the mind by feeding it junk? I suggest an affirmative answer, and that the darker side of internet memes are creating a toxic environment from which we may need to protect ourselves and those for whom we care.

Just when I thought I had finished this post, I was listening to a podcast of an episode from ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra programme (‘Democracy and trust’). Presenter Geraldine Doogue raised the topic of ‘civility’ with Bill Emmott (8:00), former editor of The Economist and author of The fate of the West: the battle to save the world’s most successful political idea. It occurred to me that the concepts of ‘civility’ and ‘civil discourse’ are very relevant to the point I have been trying to make here. As the Wikipedia article makes clear, there is much more to civility than ‘politeness’ or ‘good manners’:

Community, choices, conscience, character are all elements directly related to civility. Civility is more than just having manners, because it involves developing a civil attitude and civil responsibility. Civility often forms more meaningful friendships and relationships, with an underlying tone of civic duty to help more than the sum of its whole. (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017)

This is reflected in the etymology of the word, from the Latin civilis, ‘relating to citizens’: ‘In early use, the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. The sense “politeness” arose in the mid-16th century’ (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017). The same word is, of course, at the root of ‘civilization’.

The article on civil discourse reminds us that it ‘neither diminishes the other’s moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant’s experiences’ (Wikipedia, ‘Civil discourse’, accessed 22 July 2017).

The opposite of civility is incivility, and the following paragraph from Wikipedia could have been written for this blog post:

Incivility is the polar opposite of civility, or in other words a lack or completely without civility. Verbal or physical attacks on others, cyberbullying, rudeness, religious intolerance, lack of respect, discrimination, and vandalism are just some of the acts that are generally considered acts of incivility. Incivility is a negative part of society that has impacted many people in the United States, but as the world is becoming increasingly more transparent in social interactions, it has become more increasingly apparent that incivility has become an issue on the global stage. Social media and the web have given people the ability around the globe to freely exchange ideas, but it has not come without its consequences. (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017)

It is noteworthy that the article goes on to highlight the prevalence of incivility in politics, pointing out that Donald Trump, during his presidential campaign, ‘regularly called his rivals “stupid, incompetent and losers”‘ (the quote is from a US News article by Kenneth T. Walsh, ‘Bush Appeals for Civility in GOP Race’).

It may be that the Internet, while not the sole cause of a decline in civility, is playing a significant part in an ongoing process of decline. One reason why this matters is that a good society requires civility, so a society lacking civility will not be good. To use Aristotelian terminology, a good society encourages individual flourishing, or ‘living well’. By contrast, a bad society makes it more difficult to be a good person, and to flourish.

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude this post with a meme:

Condescending Wonka - Lulz

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Wikipedia and Kevin R. D. Shepherd

April 5, 2015

Education and the Internet — Part 2

Contents

Introduction
The Holotropic Breathwork Issue
The Sathya Sai Baba Issue
Beyond Wikipedia
Ethical Issues on Wikipedia


 

Introduction

In Part 1 I presented what I described as an ‘educational autobiography’, focussing on key stages of my own education and relevant employment, and taking particular note of the intersection of this career with stages in the development of computer technology. I also included a detailed summary of my MA dissertation in Philosophy, since I believe that the topics with which I was concerned remain relevant to the theme of these blog posts. If, as Thompson claimed in 1991, the ‘mediazation of modern culture’ has expanded the scope for the operation of ideology, then the subsequent development of the Internet is surely relevant to this claim, either tending to support it or to refute it. In addition, there is an ambivalent relationship between education and ideology: to what extent does education reinforce a dominant ideology, and to what extent does it undermine it? These are questions I will return to in a later post, but first I would like to take a detour through one particular episode in my experience of the Internet. This episode stands as a counterpoint to many of the vaunted claims being made on behalf of this evolving technology.

In 2006, at the same time that my eyes were being opened to the realities of educational assessment in the new millennium, I was also becoming familiar with one of the most prominent players of the so-called Web 2.0 era: Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia had been in existence for five years, but I had not given it much attention. The students I was tutoring in 2006 were warned that Wikipedia was not a reliable source of information, but at first I didn’t understand why this was the case. It was only when another tutor was bragging about some fun-poking ‘vandalism’ that he had perpetrated on one of the Wikipedia articles that I began to grasp the ‘wiki’ concept of user-generated content. I decided to investigate.

From my philosophical background, I was aware that attempts had been made historically to collect and organize all human knowledge. The efforts of the 18th-century French encyclopedists were deemed particularly significant, due to the rational system that informed them. (Indeed, one author compares Wikipedia to this Enlightenment predecessor – Dan O’Sullivan, Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? Farnham, Surrey, 2009, p.45.) The systematic effort to collect and organize all knowledge seemed a noble ideal, but did Wikipedia live up to it? (See also my 2010 post: Wikis and Collective Intelligence.)


 

The Holotropic Breathwork Issue

To begin with I looked at an article on a subject that I had engaged with in the 1990s. Holotropic Breathwork (HB) is a trademarked practice that was developed and marketed as a therapeutic procedure by psychiatrist, Dr Stanislav Grof, after a US (and ultimately international) ban on LSD experimentation in the late 1960s. Essentially it is a form of extreme hyperventilation that, like LSD, induces alterations in brain chemistry with unpredictable results. Grof and his wife, Christina, had introduced HB into Esalen, a significant New Age centre in California, during the 1970s and 80s. I had read some of Grof’s books in the 1990s, and I was also aware that there had been considerable controversy surrounding an attempt to introduce the practice into the Findhorn Foundation, another significant New Age centre in the far north of Scotland. I had been in correspondence with some of the medical authorities in Scotland. The most prominent of these, at Edinburgh University, wrote a report that caused the Scottish Charities Office to recommend (in 1993) that the Foundation should cancel the HB programme. I had also been in contact with a renowned psychiatrist in Dublin who had written several articles on the topic, as well as being a practitioner.

Dr Stanislav Grof: psychiatrist and promoter of LSD psychtherapy

Dr Stanislav Grof: psychiatrist and promoter of LSD psychotherapy and Holotropic Breathwork

Reading the Wikipedia article, however, one would have remained in ignorance of this background. It read more like an advertisement than an encyclopedia article. There were no references to the precautionary statements to be found in Grof’s own books. Since Wikipedia encourages the improvement of articles through collaborative editing, I thought that I could make a contribution in this case. Adhering to the foundational Five Pillars and the various policies and guidelines, beginning on 13 July I added two new sections to the article, first one on ‘Criticism’ and later a ‘Reactions and Contraindications’ section. At this stage I was editing under a pseudonym (The Communicator), since that seemed to be the common practice among Wikipedia editors.

My efforts caused considerable consternation among the existing HB editors, and resulted in a small ‘edit war’ that ultimately led to a request for mediation. My additions were all written from a neutral point of view (NPOV) and were fully sourced, so they could not be faulted on those scores. The main complaint was that I had ‘unbalanced’ the article by adding so much ‘negative’ material. I conceded that the criticism section was large in the context of the existing article, but pointed out that Wikipedia articles are constantly evolving and there was nothing to stop other editors from adding more material to balance out the criticism section. There was very little about the history of Grof’s development of HB, for example, or the ‘religious’ context in which he embedded it. Such information would have balanced the article as well as making it more informative.

This was my introduction to Wikipedia editing, and I had jumped in at the deep end. I realised very quickly that it was not uncommon for editors to have a sense of ownership over articles. This was particularly true when they edited articles on subjects about which they felt strongly. In addition, they might have devoted many hours to writing and editing their articles. They would not take kindly to a newcomer trying to alter this work, and especially if the newcomer did not share their partisan position. Of course, Wikipedia had evolved the ‘Five Pillars,’ together with policies and guidelines, for precisely these reasons, and officially the encyclopedia discouraged too strong a sense of ownership, which was clearly detrimental to NPOV.

Less charitably perhaps, I suspected that the real motive for the reaction was that the new information was a source of embarrassment for the existing editors, who admitted to being connected with HB in one way or another. If I was right about this, then it was clear that the Wikipedia guidelines could be employed to eliminate (or at least minimize) undesirable content. It would be a case of the devil citing Scripture for his own purpose.

In the case of HB, some of the partisan editors were more reasonable than others, and one of them edited the article to retain the gist of my additions, albeit in an attenuated form. What I didn’t realise, however, was that the conflict experienced in editing this article was really a minor skirmish, and I was about to be embroiled in a much broader conflict, the ramifications of which would extend beyond Wikipedia.


 

The Sathya Sai Baba Issue

On 21 November 2006, one of the partisan HB editors (Jablett) posted a comment on the article’s ‘talk’ (i.e. discussion) page, questioning the reliability of one of the sources I had used (the archive of the discussion is here). The source in question was Kevin R. D. Shepherd, an author I had become familiar with in the late 1980s. Shepherd was an independent writer with no academic or sectarian affiliations. His research interests were broad, crossing both disciplinary and cultural boundaries. Although he often described himself as an amateur (albeit a ‘serious’ one), I had found his books to be very scholarly, and often with an interesting perspective (for my reviews of some of his books, see Reflections). One aspect of his writing was an informative criticism of various ‘New Age’ trends, including practices such as Holotropic Breathwork. This was why I had cited an appendix (‘On Holotropic Breathwork’) in his Minds and Sociocultures: An Analysis of Religious and Dissenting Movements, Volume One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995). Unknown to me at the time, however, another book by Shepherd was at the centre of a Wikipedia controversy relating to Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba (SSB).

Kevin R D Shepherd 02

Kevin R. D. Shepherd (b. 1950): an independent researcher and writer. © Kevin Shepherd

By way of background, Shepherd had published several biographies on 19th and 20th century religious figures in Maharashtra, India. One of these was Sai Baba of Shirdi, a liberal Muslim faqir who died in 1918. Shirdi Sai attracted both Hindu and Muslim followers. The former category were in the majority at the end of his life, resulting in a process of ‘Hinduization’ that gained momentum after the saint’s death. Shirdi Sai Baba started to become widely revered in India, which may explain why a young Hindu in Andhra, namely Sathyanarayana Raju, claimed to be the reincarnation of the Shirdi saint in the early 1940s. The Andhra claimant to fame changed his name to Sathya Sai Baba, and was widely successful in gaining celebrity. (For Shepherd’s online article about Shirdi Sai Baba, including Sathya Sai Baba’s reincarnation claim, see ‘Shirdi Sai Baba and the Sai Baba Movement’.)

Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918), a Sufi ascetic

Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918): a Sufi ascetic

In 2005 Shepherd had published Investigating the Sai Baba Movement: A Clarification of Misrepresented Saints and Opportunism. The main subjects of the book were Sai Baba of Shirdi, Upasni Maharaj of Sakori and Meher Baba of Ahmednagar, three religious figures of Maharashtra who had been the subject of earlier treatments by Shepherd. Shepherd also supplied three appendices, documenting the case against Sathya Sai Baba, employing reports by ex-devotees of the latter. Sathya Sai Baba had been accused of fraud, sexual abuse, and even collusion in murder. The allegations were strong, and many disillusioned followers left the Sathya Sai movement. Some of them had published the evidence and allegations on the Internet, and the phenomenon as a whole had attracted major media attention.

On 14 June 2006, the Wikipedia editor Andries approvingly referred to Shepherd’s annotated book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. The full name of that editor was Andries Krugers Dagneaux; he was an ex-devotee of Sathya Sai, and very familiar with events in India. Shepherd’s book appeared in the bibliography of a Wikipedia article about Robert C. Priddy, a retired academic philosopher and sociologist, and formerly the national leader of the Sathya Sai Baba Organisation in Norway. The Priddy article became the subject of intensive attack from another editor who used the pseudonym of SSS108. His real name was Gerald Joe Moreno. Like Andries, he was an editor of the Sathya Sai Baba article, but in contrast, a fervent supporter of Sathya Sai and an obsessive opponent of ex-devotee Robert Priddy.

Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011): controversial guru

Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011): controversial guru

Moreno, of New Mexico, pitched himself against the Priddy article, attempting to have this deleted. On 9 October 2006, he created an idiosyncratic User page with the title User:SSS108/Kevin Shepherd. Moreno disputed a Wikipedia quote referring to Shepherd, whose book was included in the Priddy article he detested. The editorial quote (associated with Andries) mentioned Priddy and the infamous ‘bedroom murders’ at the ashram of Sathya Sai. Moreno regarded this quote as a major obstruction to his apologist cause, especially as the quote was so closely related to Shepherd’s book and the Priddy article, which Andries supported. The basic reasoning involved here amounted to: Shepherd’s book approvingly referenced Priddy, and featured in the Priddy article — therefore Shepherd and his book had to be eliminated.

There was an underlying sectarian motivation to the User page of SSS108, who called Shepherd’s reliability into question, on the basis that he was a self-publisher and allegedly unknown. Moreno did not, of course, declare his apologist orientation. His User page appeared on Google and caused widespread confusions among persons with no knowledge of the underlying situation. Moreno almost succeeded in eliminating the Priddy article in the ideological struggle that followed between him and Andries (repeated attempts were made to delete this article, which survived for several years after, until a more general deletionist pogrom became pervasive, eliminating thousands of articles).

Supporters of Holotropic Breathwork seized upon the SSS108 User page as an excuse to deny Shepherd’s legitimate criticism of Grof therapy. These pseudonymous editors were typical of the partisan mindset so often to be found on Wikipedia, a glaring contradiction to NPOV. They imagined that SSS108 was an authority on matters he referred to. The confusion was such that an editor calling himself Minehunter even accused me of being Stephen Castro. This was because I had cited (in my criticism section to the HB article) Castro’s book Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation (1996), which included a very critical chapter on HB.

Minehunter defended Jablett’s call for removal of the Shepherd reference at the HB article, and on 23 November, on the basis of Moreno ruse, he misleadingly described Investigating the Sai Baba Movement as a ‘vanity publication’. He knew nothing about that book, and had not read it. The references from opponents were based entirely upon their preference to exclude criticism of their favoured subject. The situation was laughable, and yet at the same time tragic, because the false status of pseudonymous bias could so easily gain ascendancy on Wikipedia. The Shepherd reference at the HB page related to an annotated book a thousand pages in length. The Shepherd reference on the Priddy page related to an annotated book over three hundred pages in length.

I defended my editing in general, and my inclusion of Shepherd in particular. I was appalled by the damaging lore created by pseudonymous editors, who masqueraded under the auspices of NPOV. Contrary to hostile insinuations, Shepherd was not unknown or insignificant. For instance, in 2006 he circulated an open letter to hundreds of eminent persons, and received replies from such British political celebrities as David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell.

In 2006, I was supported on Wikipedia by an editor calling himself Jedermann, whom I later discovered was a British academic. On both the HB discussion page and the SSS108 User page, Jedermann contested the shallow attempt to undermine Shepherd’s credibility, and provided several academic citations of the latter’s books. In 2007, Jedermann left Wikipedia in disgust at the low editorial standards in general evidence.

Shepherd himself was unaware of the attack by Moreno, not being a computer user at that time (he evidently still has a low opinion of internet influence, see ‘Internet Problems and Wikipedia’, which is part of his ‘Autobiographical Reflections’). I myself was at first only aware of the discussion at the HB article. At this time, I did not realise that editor SSS108 was a strident online defender of Sathya Sai Baba, and one who had gained notoriety for his intemperate attacks on the disaffected ex-devotees. The latter included his arch-opponent Robert Priddy, whose industrious online output eventually created an extensive and major website detailing the critique of Sathya Sai Baba (http://www.saibaba-x.org.uk/ — see also Priddy’s blog).

Other prominent ex-devotees were Brian Steel and Barry Pittard, former lecturer in English at the Sathya Sai College in India. They and many other ex-devotees were web victims of Moreno (the number of victims was eventually estimated at over a hundred). Moreno established a network of attack sites and libellous blogs, the sole purpose of which was to discredit the allegations made against Sathya Sai Baba. Moreno himself had been a devotee, and referred to a personal interview with the guru. Yet he claimed that he was no longer a devotee, which many did not find convincing in view of his strident defence tactics.

Robert Priddy

Robert Priddy: philosopher and sociologist at the University of Oslo, 1968-85. © Robert Priddy

Moreno claimed to be an expert on what he called the Sai Controversy. His method was to mock and deride opponents, whom he called Anti-Sai, and to provide very one-sided descriptions of events from an avowed Pro-Sai perspective (see ‘Gerald Joe Moreno and Sai Critics’). Shepherd refers to Moreno as a cyberstalker, indicating the forms of harassment involved (see ‘Cult Campaign of Equalizer’). Priddy is also explicit in his counter to Moreno invective. These two are the major sources on a rather fantastic web career of ‘Pro-Sai’ attack during the years 2004–2010, and inseparably associated with Wikipedia.

Unlike Priddy and others, Shepherd was not an ex-devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. The guru’s reincarnation claim made him relevant to Shepherd’s book of 2005. When Andries supported this scholarly book, Moreno (SSS108) rejected it, using the pretext of self-publication, which he was able to invoke because of acutely generalizing Wikipedia guidelines.

The conflict between Andries and SSS108 came to involve other editors, and ended in an arbitration process. At the conclusion of this event in March 2007, Moreno was described by a Wikipedia administrator as ‘aggressive, abusive, and confrontational’. He was banned indefinitely on account of activist editing.


 

Beyond Wikipedia

In July 2007, after the Wikipedia ban, Moreno extended his hostility against Shepherd. Using the pseudonym of Equalizer, he posted ‘Kevin Shepherd and Robert Priddy’ on his blog circuit, repeating his earlier attempt to undermine Shepherd’s credibility as an author. By such explicit association with Priddy, Moreno clearly thought that he was identifying Shepherd as a suitable target for ‘Pro-Sai’ attack and stigma. Afterwards, the first website of Shepherd appeared in August 2007, and this included an article protesting against the hostile tactics of Moreno (see ‘Wikipedia Issues and Sathya Sai Baba’).

Moreno ignored the points of protest, and instead quickly mounted a fresh attack in September. This occurred at his notorious website saisathyasai. Shepherd has described and contested the content in various online articles and features. For instance, ‘Apologist for Sathya Sai Baba: Gerald Joe Moreno’. Moreno presented himself as the victor in argument, dismissing all objections to his Pro-Sai version of events, and contemptuously denigrating Shepherd and the ex-devotees. Superficial readers were misled, lacking a due analytical faculty.

Shepherd subsequently rebutted the claims of his attacker, in an update of 6 November to ‘Wikipedia Issues’. This foil was entitled ‘Kevin R. D. Shepherd in response to Gerald Joe Moreno’. The update was so strategic that Moreno did not counter, save in relation to one point only, which he misrepresented.

Shepherd afterwards contradicted Moreno in extra detail. His 2008 article ‘Wikipedia, Moreno, Google’ was a thorough repudiation of the apologist conveniences. Moreno never did admit any error on his part. Instead, he pursued an elaborate SEO (Search Engine Optimization) tactic of duplicating his attacks originally appearing at saisathyasai.com in 2007. Being unable to contradict what Shepherd said, Moreno resorted to confusion by posting the same blogs over and over again at other internet locations.

In October 2008, Moreno created a new attack blog that was merely a duplication of saisathyasai in relation to Shepherd. He misleadingly called this ‘Kevin Shepherd Exposed’. That subterfuge was in the same blogspot series as his so-called ‘exposures’ of ex-devotees. All this was part of an explicit campaign in the cause of Sathya Sai Baba.

By cross-posting his attack articles against Shepherd, the cyberstalker was optimizing his blog ranking on Google Search results. This strategy demonstrated what several of the ex-devotees had already pointed out: Moreno was an astute manipulator of internet technology.

Because Moreno had resorted to this extremist expedient, in 2009 Shepherd posted a new article entitled ‘The Internet Terrorist Gerald Joe Moreno’, revealing Moreno in his true context. Robert Priddy emailed Shepherd to say that his contribution had defeated Moreno polemic. Priddy recognized that Shepherd had achieved a standard of rational argument that the ex-devotees had not been able to express. Moreno improvised new attack blogs, but his contentions were regarded as absurd by informed readers. The problem was uninformed readers, and also sectarian interests of another kind.


 

Ethical Issues on Wikipedia

In December 2009, I participated as an editor on an AfD (Article for Deletion) page, complaining against the attempt to delete a new Wikipedia article on Kevin Shepherd (see ‘Wikipedia Exegesis of Simon Kidd’). One of the opposing editors resorted to the despicable measure of making links to Moreno attack blogs on the AfD page, with the evident attention of stigmatizing Shepherd. That new agent of libel was Dazedbythebell, a supporter of Meher Baba who evidenced some indication of underlying sectarian animosities. Shepherd has provided his own detailed description of the deletionist episode in a lengthy online article (see ‘Arguments For and Against Article Deletion’ and ‘If in doubt as to whether there is consensus to delete a page…’). Indeed, this is by far and away one of the longest critiques of Wikipedia that I know of. The author has provided a convenient summary at ‘Citizen Vocation and Wikipedia Misinformation’.

Although Wikipedia personnel asserted that the deletion process was fair, in my opinion that is not true. There are two quite strong additional considerations.

First, Kevin Shepherd was not in any respect a typical instance of self-publishing, all his books being annotated and possessing indelible associations with Cambridge University Library (via the activity of unpaid private research — see ‘Cambridge Library Phase’). I was astonished to find that one of his books has over 800 endnotes. In certain of his books, the indexing is also substantial.

Secondly, the affliction suffered by Shepherd from a Wikipedia User page poses ethical questions that were very conveniently not recognized by the Wikipedia administration.

The presiding administrator (Smartse) on the Shepherd AfD page admitted that he had never heard of Sathya Sai Baba or Meher Baba. In other words, he was completely ignorant of the cyberstalker campaign that was in evidence on the AfD page, and also at a disadvantage in assessing Meher Baba movement hostilities represented by the aggressive Dazedbythebell, who was so prominent in deletion.

Jimmy Wales eventually deleted (or courtesy blanked) the SSS108 User page, but that event did not occur until 2012 (see ‘Jimbo Deletes SSS108 User Page’). Meanwhile, in December 2009, Gerald Joe Moreno (Equalizer) was able to crow triumphantly over the deletion of the article on Shepherd, advertising this event on his blog network with typically misleading flourishes (see ‘Wikipedia Slap from Gerald Joe Moreno’). The huge black hole in Wikipedia public relations and ethical standard was abundantly revealed. The depreciatory User page of a banned User was influential on Google until Wales intervened over two years later.

In 2009, I myself was a target for Moreno attack, and merely because I defended Shepherd against extremist calumny (see ‘Attacking All Connections’). Ex-devotees said that Moreno became ever more manic in his blog output during 2009; they interpreted this development in terms of his basic frustration at the strong resistance he had encountered. Moreno arguments too frequently relied on defamation, insult, and name-calling (see ‘Hate Campaign Blogs of Gerald Joe Moreno’). The logic was superficial, even when he quoted from opposing sources.

A number of Moreno blogs attempted to blacken Shepherd’s name by associating him with the more questionable beliefs and activities of some SSB ex-devotees. Shepherd’s reference to these sources never amounted to a blanket endorsement, but that made no difference to Moreno, who showed no scruple in turning the most tendentious associations to his apparent advantage. A ludicrous example of this strategy was entitled ‘Author Kevin Shepherd Endorses Psychic Trance Medium’. This deception was cross-posted on all corners of the Moreno blog network (see ‘Conny Larsson and Sathya Sai Baba’). Another puerile contrivance was ‘New Age Promoter Kevin Shepherd’ (see ‘Kevin RD Shepherd Not a New Age Promoter’).

The victim eventually provided a counter blog entitled ‘Kevin RD Shepherd Not Exposed’. This has 27 entries, thus matching the number of entries on the Moreno blog which claimed to expose him. Shepherd has abundantly revealed the deceptions in sectarian apologist thinking of the extremist variety. He notably expressed sympathy with Professor Tulasi Srinivas, who was the recipient of a blog attack by Moreno in June 2010 (see ‘Tulasi Srinivas and Moreno’).

The cyberstalker is said to have died soon after. Priddy has concluded that Moreno is dead, although another verdict is more cautious, saying confirmation is required. Certainly, the Moreno website saisathyasai disappeared from the Internet after the webmaster’s reported death. Many of his blogs remain visible.

One of the many misleading Moreno creations is the blog ‘Comical Citations to Anonymous Scholars’, appearing in September 2007 at saisathyasai.com, and thereafter widely duplicated. I happen to know something about this blog, because I was one of the anonymous scholars mentioned. Shepherd’s references were not comical, but accurate. At that time I was still identified pseudonymously on Wikipedia. Shepherd had therefore inevitably used my pseudonym (The Communicator).

Moreno claimed that Shepherd was ‘naive’ and ‘gullible’ in accepting my credentials and those of another pseudonymous editor (the abovementioned Jedermann). Shepherd had noticed my comments in a print-out of the lengthy discussion page at the HB article. He had formerly heard of me via the author Stephen Castro, to whom I had sent copies of relevant medical correspondence in the 1990s (see ‘Joe Moreno Insults Academics on Wikipedia’).

Moreno wanted to believe that The Communicator had no academic context. He even stated that this instance indicated ‘some sort of collaborated scheming’, which is another error. In support of this false contention, his update of 6 October asserted that I had altered my Wikipedia User page to include information (about an academic background) that Shepherd had supplied. Moreno wrongly claimed that this action must have been at the instigation of Shepherd. I did indeed update my User page to include relevant details of academic career, but that was nothing to do with Shepherd, who was the victim of cyberstalker assumption.

My pseudonymous status remained a problem, but I subsequently disclosed my real name on Wikipedia in 2009. Most Wikipedia editors were pseudonymous, and false names were not actually considered a problem in this web milieu. In contrast, I take the view that the difference between pseudonyms and real name editorship is an ethical issue to be duly confronted.

Reverting to Moreno and ‘anonymous scholars’, he made a similar error in his evaluation of the situation concerning Jedermann. He accused Shepherd (or Jedermann) of inventing the academic status here involved, meaning the credential of a Ph.D. Moreno more or less pronounced this to be a fiction. In actual fact, Dr. M. E. Dean, alias Jedermann, had declared his real name identity on Citizendium in March 2007, several months before Moreno made his significantly erroneous accusation. Dr. Dean had an active role in a British university. Shepherd subsequently pointed out the error of Moreno, but the facts were typically ignored by the cyberstalker (see ‘Serious Citations Are Not Comical’).

Moreno was anxious to dismiss the ‘anonymous scholars’ because they had supported Shepherd. Therefore they must be wrong, and acting in a nefarious manner. In Moreno’s argument, Shepherd could not possibly be of any significance, and therefore his supporters were fit only for derision. This angle is confirmed by Moreno’s subsequent negative reaction upon learning that I was a senior research officer at a well known Australian university. That role was similarly despised by the vehement cyberstalker, who paraded my image and supplied a mocking description. This did serve to illustrate that Moreno was an internet extremist, as Shepherd and the ex-devotees had warned.

Kevin Shepherd was completely innocent of any fabrication in relation to Jedermann or The Communicator. Yet the Moreno stigma of deceit was reapplied by Wikipedia personnel on the AfD page which caused removal of the article on Shepherd from Wikipedia. The Meher Baba supporter Dazedbythebell explicitly referred to this stigma on the AfD page, himself having placed there some links to misleading and libellous Moreno blogs. Dazedbythebell clearly endorsed the Moreno stigma, which I believe was influential to a substantial degree in this supposedly fair play of the deletionists.

I have not witnessed such malpractice in any other channel. This was one of the reasons why I supported Shepherd so strongly, although outnumbered by persons of a different disposition. The presiding administrator (Smartse) was completely unconcerned with any due investigation of the context attaching to Moreno attack blogs. He was a biologist, not an ethicist. Smartse believed that only his judgment, and that of entities like Dazedbythebell, could be the effective standard in operation (see ‘Smartse and NPOV Abuse’).

An Educational Autobiography

October 19, 2014

Education and the Internet — Part 1

Contents

Introduction
Family background
School and university
Postgraduate studies
The history of ideology
The philosophy of language
Semiotics
First experience of teaching and the move to Cambridge
Retraining


 

Introduction

In an earlier post, Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy (2010), I observed that social critic Ivan Illich had anticipated at least one aspect of the Internet, when he referred to ‘Learning Webs’ (the title of Chapter 6 of his radical 1971 book, Deschooling Society). As I wrote at the time: ‘Illich died in 2002, and so survived long enough to witness the development of the Internet, but a quick search fails to find any specific comments by him on it.’ Therefore, we can only speculate about any opinion he might have had. I will return to Illich in a later post.

That the Internet is transforming society in general, and education in particular, is beyond dispute, but how it is transforming it is another matter. As an educator I have mixed feelings about the phenomenon. My own formal education, apart from recent postgraduate studies, was largely pre-Web, so I have been able to compare my early learning journey with the effects of this technology on my adult experience, as well as to observe its effects on those who have grown up (or are growing up) with it.

Beyond schooling in all its forms, there is also the question of the influence of the Internet on education in the broad social sense. Some philosophers and media theorists provide useful interpretive frameworks for such social developments, and I will draw on them later. Theory aside, however, it is clear that the reality of some Web innovations falls far short of the ideal promoted by enthusiasts, and in Part 2 I will elucidate this point from personal experience.

In this and subsequent posts then, I am tracing the development of my own views on ‘Education and the Internet’, as the former have emerged in the course of my own education and employment. The journey will involve a lengthy detour through the details of my postgraduate research, as the latter is relevant to the topic under consideration.


 

Family background

Learning was valued in my home, although neither of my parents went to university, and like many of his generation my father didn’t even make it to secondary school. Of course, there is more to education than schooling. My father was born in Dublin in 1920, the year before the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which established the Irish Free State. At that time, his family lived at 8 Charles Street West, within a stone’s throw of the Four Courts. Eighteen months later the latter building would be occupied by anti-Treaty forces, and subsequently shelled by the new National Army.

An explosion at the Four Courts during bombardment

An explosion at the Four Courts (domed building in the background, centre right) during bombardment, 28 June 1922

One of ten (surviving) children, he had a gritty start to life, growing up between the wars. Following a childhood injury, he suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia requiring hospitalization. Around 1937 he was scheduled for surgery, but Christmas was approaching and the medical staff decided to let him go home for the holidays. What they didn’t tell him, but he later learnt, was that the two other patients who had undergone this operation had both died. He must have recovered to some extent, because the operation was not carried out at this time.

He trained as an electrician and, after the Second World War, like many of his compatriots, he travelled to England in the hope of better prospects. By this time, antibiotics had made their appearance, so that when the chest operation became a medical necessity, my father survived. He also met his wife-to-be, who was an auxiliary nurse in the hospital. He took her back to Dublin, where they married in 1950. He subsequently found employment as an electrician with the state transport company, a position he held until his retirement in 1985 (when we were growing up he would sometimes point out wiring jobs he had done at railway stations decades earlier). A socialist in outlook, he also became involved with the Electrical Trades Union, eventually holding the position of branch secretary.

He was a practical man, and moderate in lifestyle. Although not a teetotaller, he didn’t frequent pubs, and unlike many of his generation he didn’t smoke, which would have been hazardous with one lung. Despite his handicap, he cycled a lot, including the nine-mile commute to work, although he could have travelled for free on public transport (he never owned a car). In his twenties he had been inspired by his reading of George Bernard Shaw to become a vegetarian, and this was a lifelong commitment. This lifestyle contributed in no small measure to his longevity, in spite of medical predictions, and he died just two months short of his eighty-fifth birthday in 2005.

My own childhood was certainly not as difficult as my father’s, although children of the Celtic Tiger and subsequent generations would find it challenging in some respects. I was the sixth of seven children, and grew up in a three-bedroom house on a working-class Corporation housing estate. Unlike our car-owning neighbours, we walked, cycled and travelled by public transport. There was plenty of a practical nature to be done at home. For instance, a daily requirement was making the coal fire, which heated the household water in addition to warming the ‘living room’. We also maintained a vegetable garden, perhaps a legacy from my maternal grandfather, who had been employed as a gardener in England. In addition to the routine chores, my father would enlist my help when he needed to do some job or other around the house. This was an apprenticeship of sorts, as my father demonstrated skills that could only be acquired through practice. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the acquisition of such skills proved very useful later, both practically and theoretically. I will say more about this in a later post.

Me (centre) with my younger brother and father, fixing new ropes to the garden swing, an annual event (c. 1975)

With my younger brother (standing) and father (c. 1975), fixing new ropes to the garden swing, one of those ‘practical’ jobs that needed to be done every year or two. © Simon Kidd

Another part of my ‘practical’ education began when I was about twelve years old. One of my older brothers introduced me to his boss, the owner of a small horticultural business growing produce for the Dublin market. He leased several fields and some glasshouses in the Portmarnock green belt. I was to work there on and off throughout my teens, and even gained my first driving experience, on tractors. The work involved planting, weeding and harvesting, and was often hard. Sometimes it was difficult to stand up straight after hours of bending over in a field. Later, that same brother set himself up in a similar business, and I worked for him also. He included some direct selling of fresh produce to the public, via a roadside stall, so I became involved in that too.


 

School and university

Schooling was taken for granted in our working-class community, but education for its own sake was not especially valued. There were separate ‘national’ (i.e. state) schools for boys and girls. Huge class sizes in primary school meant that teachers often focussed on ‘classroom management’, although I think that in general, some extreme cases aside, we were far more respectful of authority than children in that age group today.

School photo (c. 1975)

School photo (c. 1975). © Simon Kidd

After primary school I followed in the footsteps of my older siblings, and continued my education with the Christian Brothers, at St Joseph’s Secondary CBS in Fairview. Although by that time most of the teachers were secular, there was an ethos of learning rooted in the founding example of Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762–1844). Even so, the methods were traditional, and emphasized learning of facts for examination purposes.

Towards the end of my secondary schooling (1983–85) computers were making an appearance in classrooms, but purely for the purpose of teaching programming. There was no user-friendly operating environment like Microsoft Windows, and certainly no networking. It was also at this time that the first home computers appeared, and I became the owner of a Sinclair ZX81, with 1K storage capacity! It had to be plugged into a TV and was useful for learning basic code. The display was black-and-white and there were no peripherals such as printers. All of that would change over the following decade.

Sinclair-ZX81

The Sinclair ZX81 (dimensions: 167mm x 175mm x 40mm)

My undergraduate years (1985–88) were entirely computer free, and it was during this time that I developed a method for the memorization of facts for exams. This, however, is only part of the story. Certainly I attended lectures and took notes in my chosen subject of Philosophy, and likewise completed essays and sat exams. To use Education parlance, I demonstrated the acquisition of ‘content’. At the same time, however, I entered into the ‘discourse’ of philosophy. This happened both formally, through a combination of text reading, small-group tutorial discussion, and essay writing; and also informally, through argument (in the philosophical sense) with classmates. It was a slow process, an apprenticeship of sorts, and it extended into the postgraduate years.

Seen against this background, memorization was the tip of the iceberg. What I memorized for exams were not simply facts, but arguments that I had already formed, usually through essay writing. In order to write those essays, I had to read a selection of texts (articles, chapters of books, and whole books), take notes summarizing the chains of reasoning, and finally argue for a position on the basis of the foregoing. The entire process was one of analysis and synthesis, comprising what I would later discover were known as ‘deep learning’ and ‘critical thinking’.

That I was studying Philosophy only made the process more explicit, since it is the business of philosophy to study reasoning, and argument is the modus operandi of the discipline. It was through this apprenticeship that I learned both the power of reasoning, as well as its limits, for even the best reasoning ultimately proceeds from a starting point that we assume. All arguments, if pushed far enough, will take us back to underlying assumptions, and uncovering such assumptions is itself a useful process. Another lesson that I imbibed was that any position could be subject to logical dissection, and my lecturers even encouraged such scrutiny of their own philosophical positions.

I have fond memories of that time. It was my introduction to many of the great thinkers of the past and to the problems with which they grappled. Several of my lecturers made a deep impression on me, often as much through their character as through the content of their lectures. One of them, Fr Fergal O’Connor, lectured on Plato’s Republic, demonstrating the relevance of the issues for our own time. This elderly Dominican priest, with a wealth of life experience, was not overly concerned with formal education. He would tell us that we could achieve a respectable, if mediocre, exam result if we accurately regurgitated the content of his lectures, but we could attain first-class honours if we told him something he didn’t know. At that time I didn’t appreciate that he was encouraging us to be more critical and creative in our learning. Nor did I understand the tediousness for someone in his position of marking dozens of identical exam papers, although that experience was soon to come to me. (There are obituaries of Fergal O’Connor here and here.)

Fr O’Connor also introduced me to two other writers, the significance of whom to my own interests has only recently become apparent. The first of these was German classicist Werner Jaeger, whose three-volume Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1939-44) elucidates the nature of ancient Greek education in the broad sense of ‘character formation’. The second was Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work in moral philosophy, beginning with After Virtue: a study in moral theory (1981), has been at the forefront of a renewed interest in so-called ‘virtue ethics’, which latter traces its roots through the Middle Ages to ancient Greece. One writer who has drawn out the implications of MacIntyre’s work for education in particular is Joseph Dunne, formerly Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at St Patrick’s College, Dublin. In the Preface to Back to the Rough Ground: ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy and in Aristotle (1993), he acknowledges an ‘immense debt’ to that same Dominican priest who had inspired me. A later edition of this book is alternatively subtitled ‘Practical Judgment and the Lure of Technique’ and contains a Foreword by MacIntyre. Among others, the book deals with Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, both of whom played a role in my postgraduate research, the subject of the next section.

Towards the end of my BA another dimension was added to my philosophical interests. A fellow Philosophy student recommended an introductory book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys. This was the beginning of my intellectual engagement with Eastern thought, an interest that lasts to today, albeit in a nonspecialist capacity. Eventually it encompassed all of the main Middle Eastern and Asian philosophies. My reading was supplemented by visits to various religious centres, including mosques and temples. I even visited Bede Griffiths in southern India, following an exchange of letters with him, after another fellow student introduced me to his writings on comparative religion. (For some of my nonspecialist writing in this area, see my reviews of Kevin R. D. Shepherd’s Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona and Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation.)


 

Postgraduate studies

In 1988 I graduated with a BA, having specialized in Philosophy, and I immediately enrolled as a postgraduate student. Initially I intended to complete a one-year MA by exam and minor dissertation, the latter being on the topic of Myth in the work of Eric Voegelin, having become familiar with this writer through one of my undergraduate lecturers. After some preliminary research, however, which included a study of Mircea Eliade and the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer, my interest in the ability of myth to ‘organize’ experience developed in the direction of ideology and language, and I switched to a two-year MA by major dissertation. I was also influenced by my reading of One-Dimensional Man by Frankfurt School neo-Marxist, Herbert Marcuse. I will go into this topic in some detail, since it played such a formative role in my intellectual development and it relates to the subject of this post.

BA graduation at University College Dublin, 1988

BA graduation, University College Dublin, 1988. © Simon Kidd


 

The history of ideology

Today the concept of ‘ideology’ has negative connotations. It is used to refer to the body of beliefs, doctrines, etc., that guide an individual, group or institution, and is often associated with political programs. It was not always understood in this way, however, as I will demonstrate below.

In his Novum Organon (1620), Francis Bacon (1561–1626) referred to idola (‘idols’), the false notions that obstruct the mind’s accurate comprehension of reality. Bacon categorized the different types of idols, with some being innate and others the result of socially determined distortion. Among the latter is the tendency to accept uncritically propositions that have become established with time. Language itself is a distorting medium through which we experience the world. In a move that was as significant for the development of modern science as for philosophy, Bacon proposed that the deductive logic of ancient and medieval thought be replaced by the method of induction.

Following Bacon, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715–71) and Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723–89), developed the notion of the social determination of ideas, significantly linking it with power, including the power of religion. Helvetius recognized that domination is buttressed by the production and dissemination of certain kinds of prejudices: ‘experience shows … that almost all moral and political questions are decided by the powerful, not by the reasonable. If opinion rules the world, in the long run it is the powerful who rule opinion’ (De l’Homme). Significantly, it was also recognized that the powerful members of society do not need to impose their prejudices on the populace; rather, the latter adopt the prevailing opinion and, for some reason, prefer to live in ignorance of their true situation. For the Enlightenment thinkers, education represented the escape route from prejudice. They believed that behind the socially distorted understanding is a rational essence that can be liberated by the power of reason.

The term ‘ideology’ emerged in post-revolutionary France, where imprisoned aristocrat Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) conceived an empirical science of thinking, designed to overcome false ideas. This was later developed in his Eléments d’idéologie, which defined ideology positively as the antithesis of prejudice. Napoleon initially supported de Tracy and his colleagues in the Moral and Political Sciences division of the Institut National, but later turned against them, branding them pejoratively as ‘ideologists’, impractical intellectuals who did not understand the real workings of government. In the final volume of his Eléments, de Tracy was forced to admit that economic interests were more powerful determinants of social life. The full implications of this idea were later drawn out by Marx.

Following de Tracy, the concept of ideology was developed in two major streams of modern thought, French positivism and German idealism, although neither used the term itself. In the former, Auguste Comte (1798–1857) conceived of knowledge passing through progressive stages, culminating in empirical science. In the latter, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) spoke in terms of history as the working out of Absolute Spirit (Geist), coming to know itself through its objectification in the world. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) inverted Hegel’s process by describing the Absolute (God) as a projection of human qualities, with religion being a stage to be overcome.

There are several interrelated senses of ‘ideology’ in the writings of Karl Marx (1818–83). In his early writings, culminating in The German Ideology (1846), which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels (1820–95), he demonstrated his intellectual debt to Hegel and Feuerbach. Like Hegel, Marx saw history as a law-governed process; and like Feuerbach, he wanted to reclaim essential human qualities, which had been projected outside the human being and become ‘alien’ powers. According to Paul Ricoeur, this early work represented a progressive characterization of ‘the real’ and its opposite, ‘the unreal’. The former was identified with praxis, the creative activity whereby human beings produce the material conditions of their existence. This activity carries within itself the possibility that the products of labour, including social institutions, assume an existence independent of the conditions that give rise to them. This is ‘alienation’.

The ‘German Ideology’ that Marx and Engels criticized was, nevertheless, the philosophy of the Young Hegelians, including Feuerbach. They found in this ‘idealistic’ philosophy precisely the sort of distortion that occurs when ideas become separated from their basis in real life. This leads to the illusion that society can be changed by replacing ‘false’ ideas with ‘true’ ones, as the Enlightenment thinkers believed, rather than by altering the material conditions of life. As Marx wrote in his eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’.

In opposition to the German idealism, Marx and Engels proposed a materialistic philosophy that they believed would re-establish the true relationship between life and thought:

Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men developing their material production and their material intercourse alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

This systematic or ‘epistemological’ conception of ideology, however, in which the distorting nature of ideology is internal to knowledge itself, simply inverted the problem of idealism. After all, how could the so-called material conditions of life have any meaning for us, if they were not already imbued with ‘ideas’?

Later in The German Ideology Marx and Engels provided a more political conception of ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas …

In this sense, ideology serves the interests of a particular group, the ruling class. According to Marx and Engels’ description, the division of mental and material labour allows a section of the ruling class to become its professional thinkers, ‘its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood’. We might describe this group as the intelligentsia.

Marx’s later formulations of ‘ideology’ did not escape from the paradox inherent in his earlier writings. For instance, in his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), he described ideology in terms of a ‘superstructure’ that depends on an ‘economic foundation’ (what he later called the ‘base’):

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

The first sentence reflects the political definition of ideology, while the second reflects the epistemological one. But is the ‘mode of production of material life’ not already ‘informed’ by ideas? And what happens to ‘the social, political and intellectual life process’ once the communist society has been achieved? What forms of intellectual life would exist then? And what did Marx think was the status of his own theory in this schema? Were his ideas exempt from the very causal process that they described? In short, the base–superstructure model presents the relationship between activity and ideas in almost mechanical (economic) terms, and this oversimplification cannot do justice to a theory of ideology. Consciousness is not a passive reflection of an independent world, and ideas have a more positive role to play in constituting our subjectivity.

The tension between the epistemological and political senses of ideology was bequeathed by Marx to the theorists who followed him, and resulted in various attempts to overcome it. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), for instance, declared that one simply had to choose between bourgeois and socialist ideology. For Georg Lukács (1885–1971)  all thought is ideological, but that doesn’t make all thought (or ideology) equal. Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) conceived of ideology as an element in the phenomenon he described as ‘hegemony’, that is the institutions of civil society (family, school, media) as opposed to economy and state. Although coercion remains a possibility, through hegemony a dominant power secures its authority without recourse to it. In the words of Terry Eagleton, hegemony is ‘the “common sense” of a whole social order’. Although this would be true of any social formation, capitalism appears to represent a decisive shift in the ratio of consent to coercion; for the use of force, the naked manifestation of power, is only likely to reduce ideological credibility and destabilize the political status quo. As Machiavelli had recognized four centuries earlier, ‘deceit’ is more efficient than pure force. Hegemony represents the internalization of power – by its means, the individual lives under the illusion of self-government.

The epistemological circle inherent in Marx was not overcome by any of these theorists, since each one had to recognize his own historical situatedness, and this undermined any claim to objectivity in his theory. Perhaps the most sophisticated attempt was made by the Frankfurt School neo-Marxist Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). In Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), Habermas distinguished three groups of sciences, each with its own distinctive ‘interest’. For the natural sciences this interest is one of technical control and manipulation. For the historical and interpretive sciences it is communication. Finally, the critical social sciences have emancipation as their objective.

Habermas credited Marx with having elaborated a theory of human nature and society in terms of practical interests. For him, Marx was actually engaged in forms of historical-interpretive science and critical social science. Under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, however, and in particular the celebration of the natural sciences, Marx conceived of his work in terms of natural science. For Habermas, then, Marx was himself subject to a form of ideological thinking – the ideology of Enlightenment attitudes towards science. Therefore, although Marx’s critique of capitalist society was still relevant, his categories had become redundant. Habermas wanted to reinstate the historical and interpretive sciences, in recognition of the fact that social activity is inherently meaningful, and cannot be reduced to causal explanation. Human beings do not simply interact, but exchange symbols in a constant process of communication, a process that can only be understood through interpretation.

In ideology, however, interpretation is not straightforward, since ideological communication is distorted, bearing as it does the marks of the power relations that pervade society. Therefore, Habermas insisted that the historical-interpretive sciences must give way to the critical social sciences, since only they have the ‘distanciation’ required by ideology critique. His ‘theory of communicative action’ represents his attempt to overcome ideology by positing an ideal of unimpeded communication towards which all utterances tend.

This notion brought Habermas into conflict with another tradition within European thought: the hermeneutical tradition in the Philosophy of Language. In order to understand this, it is necessary for me to retrace my steps.


 

The philosophy of language

As an undergraduate I had been attracted to the theory of the ‘language game’ developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), which supported the notion that words only have meaning in a context. My postgraduate research introduced me to the more radical idea that humans are interpreting beings per se. Historically this development represented the movement from interpretation as a regional discipline (e.g. Biblical interpretation) to interpretation as fundamental to all human activity. This shift had been initiated by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), particularly with his notion of the Lebenswelt or ‘life world’, which was taken up by his student, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and carried on by the latter’s student, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), in addition to others.

Thus philosophical ‘hermeneutics’ (from a Greek word meaning ‘interpretation’) was born. Gadamer emphasized the situatedness of human understanding within a ‘horizon’ of meaning. As we grow up we adopt the interpretative framework of our culture. Tradition has a determining influence over us. It was this consideration that led to the famous (and inconclusive) debate between Gadamer and Habermas, with the latter arguing that it is possible to transcend and criticise tradition, and the former responding that criticism may take place from within a tradition but can never entirely transcend it.

Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) took the notion of ‘situatedness’ further. He proposed that the philosophical search for meaning could no longer assume direct access to the truth. Instead it was necessary to take a ‘hermeneutic detour’. In particular, Ricoeur claimed that Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (whom he termed ‘masters of suspicion’) had shown that human beings are unconsciously determined by forces that are greater than themselves, whether the force be relations of production, the will to power, or the libido. Any search for truth would have to negotiate such factors.

Ricoeur later developed an interest in ‘narrative identity’. According to this theory, our life experiences are not disjointed episodes but rather integrated by the individual into a coherent story or narrative. In this way, the meaning of our lives is constructed through a process of interpretation, even if such a narrative is never overtly expressed.

Regarding ideology, Ricoeur provided a useful framework with which we may be able to accommodate the heterogeneous features of the phenomenon, defining it in terms of three concepts, each being successively dependent on the one preceding it. These reveal ideology’s ‘integrating’, ‘legitimating’, and ‘distorting’ functions respectively. The first concept is the most neutral, as it describes the power of ideology to integrate a society through self-image, justification, etc. From this basis, the second concept describes ideology’s role in legitimating power. Finally, based on the ability of ideology to integrate and legitimate, the third concept describes its negative role as distorting.


 

Semiotics

As part of my research into language and ideology, I also undertook an investigation of the area known as ‘semiotics’ (from the Greek word for ‘sign’, semeion). I was particularly interested in the work of Umberto Eco (1932–2016), who belongs to a tradition passing back through Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) to Roger Bacon (c. 1214–c. 1293), Augustine (354–430), and the Stoic philosophers. According to this tradition, a sign is a relation of three entities (or perhaps more accurately a process involving three entities). Peirce referred to these entities as the ‘sign’, its ‘object’, and an ‘interpretant’.

This triadic relation distinguishes semiotics from the ‘semiology’ associated with Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), which conceives of the sign in terms of a more ‘static’ dyadic relationship between a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’. In the semiotic schema, anything can become a sign of anything else, on the basis of the mediating function provided by an interpretant. A sign, therefore, is something that stands for something else, in some respect or capacity. Smoke can be a sign of fire, but it can also be a sign of human habitation. The implication is that signs require interpretation.

According to Eco, signs are interpreted according to a ‘code’, which is the sum of the cultural rules governing sign-functions. There are many interconnected subcodes, and any sign-function can be interpreted according to multiple subcodes, sometimes producing contradictory interpretations. Since the process of ‘semiosis’ is in principle unlimited, Eco invokes ‘context’ and ‘circumstance’ to explain how one interpretation becomes more plausible than another. For example, in the context of politics, ‘red’ denotes ‘communist’; and with the circumstantial marker ‘police’, it connotes ‘subversive’, etc. In the context of economics, however, ‘red’ denotes ‘debt’ (to be ‘in the red’); while with the circumstantial marker ’employment’, it connotes ‘unemployment’, ‘eviction’, etc.

Through association, particular contexts and circumstances become part of the compositional makeup of signs. A sign can accordingly be defined as a ‘set of instructions’ for its possible employment and interpretation (note the similarity of this to Wittgenstein’s notion that the meaning of a word is its use). These instructions will vary from individual to individual, age to age, and culture to culture. They also allow for the creative attribution of meaning (e.g. metaphor), an aesthetic process with the potential to enrich the code.

In semiotic terms, ideological communication represents the attempt to constrain meaning to a single interpretation, i.e. the desired interpretation that a group wants to promote. This runs counter to the unlimited nature of semiosis. Eco calls it ‘code-switching’: the privileging of one subcode while concealing others. He points out that mass communication often appears as the manifestation of a domination that attempts to ensure social control by planning the sending of messages. In a similar vein, John B. Thompson refers to the unprecedented growth of mass communication in contemporary society as ‘the mediazation of modern culture’ and he believes it has expanded the scope for the operation of ideology.

Eco points out, however, that interpretation occurs at the destination of a message rather than at the source. The sender of a message does not have complete control over its interpretation by an addressee. Therefore, rather than attempting to control a message by acting on the circumstances of its source, Eco advocates acting on the circumstances of its destination. He describes this as a ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the semiotic endeavour, a type of ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’.

Semiotics, therefore, provides both a framework for the understanding of ideology, as well as the possibility of ideology critique and a pragmatic method of undermining it.

In conclusion, we see that the history of ideology and the history of the philosophy of language intersect at the point of tension between our historical (and linguistic) situatedness, on the one hand, and our attempt to overcome the distortions that arise from it.


 

First experience of teaching and the move to Cambridge

At the time that I commenced postgraduate studies I also became a tutor to philosophy undergraduates. This was my first experience of being at the front of a classroom, and I grew to like it, even if it didn’t come naturally to an introvert. One of the challenges of the job was the marking of a hundred or more essays on the same topic. This was my practical introduction to the ‘normal distribution’, although I was not then familiar with the term. It was clear that there was a range of ability in any group. I wouldn’t tutor university students again for another seventeen years, and there would be a new challenge by that time.

Before that, however, in the spring of 1995 I moved to Cambridge, a place I had visited briefly a few years earlier. After a couple of nights in a B&B, I found a room in a shared house and obtained work as a pot washer in St John’s College. The latter was followed by two part-time jobs: one as a gardener at Newnham College, and the other as a bookseller in Heffers, the main academic bookshop in Cambridge and an institution in the town (since bought out by its Oxford rival, Blackwell). In the bookshop I worked in the Department of Oriental and African Studies, which was a very agreeable environment for someone with my interests.

With the help of a letter from the Professor of Philosophy at UCD, I acquired a reader’s ticket for the University Library. I also made contact with academics in what is now the Faculty of  Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and during the summer of that year I completed a survey of the secondary literature on a 17th-century Persian text called the Dabestan-e Mazaheb. This text, written during the reign of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, describes and compares various religions and philosophies, including Akbar’s syncretic Din-i Ilahi. I had become interested in this work as a result of my reading in Middle Eastern and Asian philosophies. I was even provisionally accepted as an MPhil student at King’s College, but was unable to obtain funding for further studies.

The bookselling job soon became full-time, and altogether I worked at Heffers for four years, dealing with students, academics and the general public. I encountered many interesting people, including some celebrities, and my first wife. I met the writer, John Cornwell, and became his assistant in the Science and Human Dimension Project, a ‘public understanding of science’ body based in Jesus College. Part of this role involved conference organization. Eventually I moved from bookselling to publishing, first as an editor and project manager, and then for a small company that specialized in digital encoding (XML).

Interior of Heffers main store, Trinity Street, Cambridge

Interior of Heffers main store in Cambridge

At this time I was also a member of the Scientific and Medical Network (SMN), an association of people with a broad interest in the sciences. They ranged from well-known academics, on the one hand, to university graduates and other intellectuals who maintained an interest in what might be described as ‘progressive’ ideas. As I later discovered, at the other end of the spectrum were ideas that are sometimes referred to as ‘lunatic fringe’. I attended meetings of the local SMN group, and wrote a couple of book reviews for Network, the SMN journal.

In 2003 I moved to Australia and became the primary carer for my two children, my wife having secured a senior academic position. When, in 2006, my youngest child started at a Montessori school, I grasped the opportunity to tutor undergraduates taking compulsory units in Philosophy and Ethics at a local university. Admittedly these students were not taking a degree in Philosophy, and there was the same range of ability that anyone might expect, but one factor came as a complete surprise to me.

In the intervening decade and a half, society had witnessed the advent of the Internet. Initially this had seemed like a useful tool for communication and the exchange of information. Email, for example, was fast and convenient. Then came websites conveying basic data. Subsequent developments saw the Web becoming more interactive (so-called Web 2.0): YouTube, Wikipedia, social networking, and so on. Illich’s notion of a ‘learning web’ was not simply realised – his expectations were exceeded, at least potentially.

My first intimation of the effect of this social change on education came from reading student essays in 2006. I found myself reading text that could not possibly have been written by the students I knew in the classroom. It was simply not their authorial voice. It was not necessarily the case that I was being given an essay that had been found online, although I became aware of this possibility. Rather I was seeing whole swathes of text that were being copied and pasted. At their worst, some essays were a patchwork of chunks of text cobbled together into the semblance of a coherent essay, with the occasional substitution of terms with synonyms. The problem was that they were usually not coherent, with the added disadvantage that such submissions usually took me more time to mark because I had to trawl the Internet to find the source of the various pieces in order to demonstrate their origin. Later I learned that websites had been developed for automatic checking of this kind, at the essay submission stage, precisely in order to combat fraud and reduce the time wasted.

Naturally these essays did not score highly, and in the worst cases they were an instant ‘Fail’. More surprising to me was that the offending students seemed to think that their inclusion of a web address in the references prevented them from falling foul of the university’s plagiarism policy. Furthermore, since these were compulsory units, many students were only concerned with obtaining the required ‘Pass’ grade needed for graduation. If they had postponed the unit(s) until their final semester, sometimes in a four-year course, a ‘Fail’ meant that they had to repeat the unit and postpone their graduation.

These were not minor considerations for the students concerned, since they had both financial and social consequences. What bothered me, however, was that such practices were inimical to the sort of deep learning that I had acquired as an undergraduate. The offending students were simply not acquiring the hard-earned skills of analysis and synthesis that had been necessary to good research and writing in the pre-Web era.


 

Retraining

After a year of tutoring I got a job in the Extension department at the University of Western Australia, that part of the institution with a particular vocation for community outreach, and located at that time in the beautiful building and grounds of the former Claremont Teacher Training College. My areas of responsibility were Intellectual Adventures (which included the philosophical courses), Languages, and Writing and Communication. My time in this role was very rewarding: for me it represented education in a very positive sense – people studying topics of interest to them, motivated only by the love of learning, without testing or the awarding of qualifications (at most, there were certificates of participation). Courses were offered both by academics and external providers. Many of our ‘clients’ were of mature age, with enough disposable income and spare time to participate in such activities.

UWA Extension in Claremont

UWA Extension in Claremont

After a year and a half I was offered a position in the University Vice-Chancellery, and I experienced a very different side to the university, one more concerned with governance. In my role as a senior research officer, I became aware of various trends in third-level education, including institutional reorganization and the development of novel architectural spaces. It was during my twelve months in this position that I heard that the Faculty of Education was going to offer a Master of Primary Teaching degree. I enrolled in this course and spent the next two years studying the various ‘content’ areas of the curriculum, as well as principles of pedagogy, ‘special’ education, and ‘classroom management’. I graduated in 2011.

A large proportion of the course was devoted to practical and administrative aspects of teaching, as well as the content of the curriculum, but I was particularly attracted to the philosophical aspects of pedagogy, in particular the ‘social constructivist’ ideas of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). These I could relate to my background in hermeneutics. For example, according to social constructivism, education is a process of induction into the norms of a society, whereby meaning is actively constructed by the child. New information is understood (or interpreted) by being assimilated to existing knowledge frameworks. It is easy to see how such ideas are congruent with Gadamer’s ‘horizon of meaning’ and Ricoeur’s ‘narrative identity’.

Another unit that I particularly enjoyed was ‘Teaching and Learning with New Technologies’, which increased my understanding of the potential role of blogs, wikis, and other new technologies in education. The present blog began as a requirement for that unit. The lecturer created a useful wiki (E-language) containing resources for those with an interest in this topic. Of particular relevance here is the Myths of e-learning page.

What was not included in this course was the sort of philosophical questioning that was a natural part of my earlier degree. It was in Dublin that I had first read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, whereas this book and others like it were not familiar to the majority of my classmates, most of whom were about two decades younger than me, and graduates in a range of degrees that did not include philosophy. It was at this time that I discovered other critics of schooling, such as John Taylor Gatto, although these ‘alternative’ authors were not on my official reading list.

There was one outlet for my earlier interest in the Philosophy of Education, however, in the form of the Capstone unit in the second year of my degree. This unit encouraged research in an area of personal interest, and I chose the topic of ‘giftedness’ from a philosophical perspective. The resulting paper was entitled ‘Giftedness and Philosophy’ and it is available here.

Around the time I was retraining as a teacher, I became aware of the movement advocating the teaching of Philosophy to children. A colleague at UWA was secretary of the Western Australian Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS), and she persuaded me to get involved. I attended the Association’s Level-1 training and started going along to meetings. At the 2010 AGM I was elected secretary, a position I remained in until the end of 2014. Through APIS I also got involved in the Western Australian Philosothon, an inter-school Philosophy competition that started in WA in 2007 before becoming a national event in 2011. The competition has since spread to other countries.

I will return to a consideration of issues in Philosophy of Education in subsequent posts, but first I need to go into some detail about another aspect of the Web that I personally encountered during this period.

Continued in Part 2

Peter Benson and Sparks

October 12, 2011

This Tedx talk by recently deceased Peter L. Benson, former president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Search Institute, is very reminiscent of Ken Robinson’s notion of The Element. Like Robinson, Benson indicates the significance to our learning of finding out what truly inspires us. He similarly emphasises the role of creativity in learning. In a final point of comparison, he relates anecdotes (such as the one about Amy Irving) that give an unexpected insight into the background of some well known person. Here’s a quote from the final minutes of the talk:

I would make knowing kids’ sparks at the very centre of school life. In fact, I’d put it right at the front. I don’t know how you can engage and connect and bond kids to the institution called school without knowing their spark. I would teach families the process of the spark dialogue, and how to name, firm and be champion. I would make the first parent-teacher conference of the year to be about the spark of a kid: let’s talk that through, and we’ll get to the rest of the stuff.

Counting What Can’t Be Counted

March 9, 2011

Thanks to Zoe Weil over at Cooperative Catalyst for posting this.

Arnold Greenberg, founder of Miquon Upper School in Philadelphia, Deep Run School of Homesteading, and Liberty School – A Democratic Learning Community, lives in an off-the-grid cabin in East Blue Hill, Maine. He wrote this essay, “Towards a Different Standard: Counting What Can’t Be Counted,” which I wanted to share with readers of Cooperative Catalyst. Enjoy.

Here we go again with yet another set of academic standards under the title Race to the Top—an attempt to replace the great aspirations of No Child Left Behind. Now, we have brand new recommendations for what all students should master in English and Math as they move from elementary through high school and graduate ready, it is hoped, to succeed in college and flourish in their futures.

English and math experts consulted last year by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief School Officers went to a great deal of trouble producing the new standards. The English section, for instance, is six hundred pages long and attempts to define what all students are expected to know and be able to do. The Obama administration is taking a “tough love” approach, firing principals and teachers in schools that do not meet the standards and also encouraging states to compete for a piece of the four billion dollar federal pie if they adopt the new standards. The goal is to end up with national rather than widely different state standards, and ultimately to enable our young people to compete with other countries, most of which have national standards and outscore the U.S. on international tests.

Unfortunately, there is little substantial difference between Race to the Top and NCLB. It’s more of the same dressed up with a fresh coat of paint and reminds me of Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Einstein also said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” The purpose of this essay is to explore what “counts” in education but can’t be counted, as well as possible ways to measure those aspects of becoming educated that I believe are more significant than what we now measure—especially as we experience the world of the 21st Century.

Our current approach to education hasn’t changed in over two hundred years. It was designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Age and was based largely on techniques developed in Prussia when its work and military forces required a compliant citizenry. Known as “psycho-physics,” the Prussian model involved breaking knowledge into segments that are interrupted by a horn or bell before moving on to another subject, thereby making students dependent on the teacher. It was an effective way to stamp out factory workers and to sort young people into different levels of employment—executives, managers, and common laborers—but now it is woefully obsolete.

While the emphasis in our schools has been on preparing young people to be productive members of society, there is evidence that many people learned the necessary skills without going to school. The list of self-educated people who went on to be successful is extensive—Lincoln and Edison to name only two. What qualities and characteristics enabled them not only to learn the essential skills, but also to be creative, determined people who lived significant, productive lives?

My concern here is the emphasis our schools place on measuring what is easily measured at the expense of developing those qualities that many self-educated people learn outside of school. And since measuring everything that schools do seems to be so important, is there a way to measure the qualities that I will call a “different standard?” Can we learn to count what can’t be counted?

Before looking more closely at those questions, it is important to have a deeper awareness of the unique qualities of each child because they are ignored and smothered by our approach to learning. We are missing a major component in understanding individuality and why our schools are thwarting the true potential of so many young people unless we consider the following statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to its secret.” Unfortunately, the utilitarian nature of our schools ignores that “secret” aspect of individuality and instead the goal is homogenization.

Another statement of Emerson’s that resonates with me is, “The purpose of education is to teach how to live, not how to make a living.” Clearly, this is the antithesis of our current approach to education, with its overarching emphasis on what all students should know in order to be prepared for college or the workplace.

To achieve schools able to meet the utilitarian goals of society, a systematic approach was created by a team of university presidents, who, beginning in 1892, devised the Carnegie Unit—a system of breaking down knowledge into lessons that if dispensed for a certain number of minutes each day, five days a week, could, by the end of the year, produce the desired results. All subjects could be presented in this way and after twelve years, students would be ready to graduate. On paper this “scientific” approach was neat, clean, and measurable. However, it ignored many variables.

Two of the variables are the teacher and the individuality of the students, both of which are impossible to control. Lip service is given to respecting individuality but in reality, the student is also a “unit” whose uniqueness does not count. Some students are successful under this practice and learn what is expected, possibly at the expense of their talent, intelligence, and creativity. Others refuse to learn and either became discipline problems or passively go through the motions of learning enough to get by. Others learn by pursuing their interests and passions outside of school. Today, according to the Gates Foundation, an estimated 3500 students drop out every day—a figure that does not include those who drop out mentally but are still enrolled. The fact is only a small percentage of students graduate from high school prepared to do college work and less than half of students who go to college complete their education—some for financial reasons but most because they are not prepared.

It is important to see our approach to educating our children in the context of our times. As any one who has read Tom Friedman’s, The World is Flat or seen Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” knows that things are radically different today than they were even ten years ago. Our children and the “yet to be born” are inheriting a world and way of living that is becoming unrecognizable. The awesome power and potential of the Internet is transforming how we communicate and collaborate, while at the same time we are on a collision course with destructive environmental issues the results of which are impossible to calculate. If our schools are expected to prepare young people for the world of the twenty-first century, how do schools meet that challenge?

In order to prepare our young people for the coming decades, we must consider the research on how the brain works. Children are naturally powerful learners and acquire a great deal of knowledge and skills through playing, observing, asking questions, and experiencing the world around them. They learn by doing and solving problems, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and pursuing what is relevant to them in the moment. It’s amazing to watch children learning so spontaneously and proficiently while mostly having fun.

Our schools, however, take an approach opposite to the way children learn prior to going to school. Suddenly learning becomes equated with following instructions, and too often the natural joy of learning is replaced by a prescribed curriculum whereby the teacher dispenses information to be reproduced on a test. This approach isn’t questioned by parents because that’s the way they were taught too. Only now, barraged by the media, the Internet, and increasing numbers of adult-structured extracurricular activities, young people today have very little time to call their own.

It’s interesting that the original meaning of the word school is schola, which in Greek means “leisure”—the leisure for discourse, pursuing interests, and play. Everyone acknowledges that our schools are not working and are resistant to change. Bailing out our banks and Wall Street without really changing how they do business and expecting different results is a form of Einstein’s insanity. Pouring more money into our schools and coming up with a new revision of standards is another. It hasn’t worked in the past and it will not work in the future.

Why are our schools so stuck? The reasons are many, but a major one according to Seymour Sarason in The Culture of Schools and the Problem of Change is the hierarchal structure whereby curriculum mandates and policies are created by corporations, universities, and government and passed down to Departments of Education, then to superintendents and principals, and finally to teachers who have little or no autonomy. No Child Left Behind was the most recent example. It has stifled creative change, destroyed morale, and proven to be largely ineffective, and there is no reason to believe Race to the Top will be any different with its added threat of principals and teachers losing their jobs if their students do not meet the new standards.

So what is the alternative? I believe there needs to be a paradigm shift in education before we can create schools based on how children actually learn and that address 21st-century realities. The shift I am proposing centers on a problem-based curriculum in which the goal is to develop the ability to articulate important questions about issues of concern and to learn how to find solutions. “Let the questions be the curriculum,” Socrates once advocated. He “taught” by asking questions to which he did not know the answers, and he said he owed his wisdom to his willingness to let his questions guide him. Here I think it is illuminating to note the relationship between the words “quest” and “question.” For Socrates, it is the quest for knowledge that is important. A good question is a quest and can be the beginning of important journeys into the unknown.

A problem-based approach to learning is as natural as breathing. It could dramatically change how schools are structured and how teachers teach, and ultimately enable students to develop the abilities that really “count.” Problem-based learning is built on the assumption that the most effective learning takes place when students are using their knowledge to solve real life problems that concern them. It encourages them to work either individually or collaboratively on problems that are relevant to their lives in order to create and propose solutions as opposed to the traditional approach of reproducing information. Through analysis, strategizing, and the gathering of data and information, student learning is deepened because it is being used to solve real problems. Imagine students exploring the causes for global warming and proposing solutions or analyzing our current food distribution system that has a billion people hungry and suggesting how these problems can be remedied.

In a problem based curriculum, the three Rs are replaced by the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. The emphasis is on is how, not what to learn, and the structure of the school day is no longer divided into units of time and separate subject matter disciplines. The classroom is no longer rows of desks with the teacher at the front “teaching.” And the children are no longer passive recipients of information, but are active problem solvers. They are learning how to look at the root causes of a problem, gather data through research, and collaborate on a possible solution. When they are finished, they present the results of their quest to their learning community, prepared to defend their solutions as part of a critical dialogue. Getting feedback and evaluating themselves is an important part of the learning process.

The role of the teacher changes from dispenser of information to model, guide, facilitator, and more experienced learner. I like to think of the teacher as a consenting partner in the learning process and of the relationship between teacher and student as a loving, collegial friendship, as opposed to the authoritarian style that is now the norm.

What are the different standards that can be achieved with a problem-based curriculum? Here are a few that I believe are most valuable: the ability to determine and articulate a significant question, to collaborate and communicate clearly orally and in writing, to become an independent, self-directed learner able to sustain motivation, to use time wisely, and to be a joyful, spirited citizen of his or her community and the world. I am convinced that the students who learn in a problem-based curriculum will do as well or better on the new Race to the Top standardized tests of academic performance without “teaching to the test.”

All of this brings us back to the question, is it possible to “count” what can’t be counted? Schools currently depend on multiple choice tests to measure performance, but I believe a different method is necessary, one that is based on observation and students’ self-perceptions. This approach to “measuring” would attempt to evaluate growth in certain areas over a period of time. Comparing a student’s self-evaluation with the observations of the teacher would be one way to measure what formerly was not measured.

Significant progress has been made in attempting to measure the qualities that are developed in a problem-based curriculum by Mark Van Ryzin, a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. In what he calls the “Hope Study,” he surveyed students on issues such as their relationships with peers and teachers, their perception of the impact of learning environment on them, and how they feel about their progress and their futures. He placed their responses in the categories autonomy, belongingness, and hope, and he discovered it is possible over a period of time to see how a student’s self-perceptions have evolved. By focusing on students’ self-perceptions, perhaps we will be able to determine how successful a problem-based approach is to improving students’ performance as well as their attitude toward their futures—that is, are they happier and more hopeful?

In Mary C. Clark’s seminal book, In Search of Human Nature, a vast study of various cultures, she determines that there are three “propensities” essential to human happiness —autonomy, bonding, and meaning. This is similar to what the “Hope Study” attempts to measure. Autonomy is a sense of self, feeling one’s individually is respected and in Emerson’s words, one’s “fore-ordained” uniqueness is allowed to flourish. Bonding is the sense of belonging to a family and community. Meaning refers to having a sense of purpose; that one’s life is of value to one’s community.

Comparing the growth in these areas as students transition from a traditional to a problem-based approach with the results of standardized tests of academic achievement would provide significant information that could encourage more schools to adopt a problem based approach and radically change how schools look and operate. It is likely that students from problem-based schools will do as well or better on the “Race to the Top” tests; however, we would also be measuring what formerly was not “counted but count.”

A paradigm shift in how we structure our schools, and how we engage young people intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively in ways that develop their ability to be collaborators and creative problem solvers can achieve different standards that can truly make a difference. The shift to a different standard will develop those all-important qualities that previously could not be counted, skills and attitudes that will go a long way toward creating a better world.