Archive for the ‘society’ category

A brief history of hate

June 4, 2018

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
       Robert Frost, 1920

As a fairly regular user of Twitter, I frequently encounter contributors whose main motivation is clearly a desire to express their hatred of someone or something. They are not of course blazing some new trail. The Bible, classical Greek history, the Middle Ages – all are full of tales of hate and revenge, of senseless feuds and vendettas. Hatred is a recurring theme of Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed the literature of most countries. It came to define a key part of the last century.

Hate is not new. But what has changed is that it has found a much more accessible platform in today’s social media and it is changing who we are, just a little. It motivates voters, it frames argument (even intellectual argument), it feeds conspiracy theories, it destroys reason.

I’m not sure Frost is right, however; at least not about our current age. The hate of the 20th century may have been ice cold, but today’s burns with trivial passion fuelled by inconsequential bitterness. In the academic world, we would do well to keep alive the flame of reason. It is what we are there for.

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You say you want a revolution…

May 7, 2018

Anyone following contemporary debates about the future of work and civilisation will, sooner or later (and very probably sooner), be listening to comments about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It’s everywhere, and while its exact meaning may not always be clear, what is constantly repeated is that it is happening now and is changing absolutely everything. Everything is being digitised, brought online, automated, and subjugated to robotics. Your job and mine will go, we will be replaced by machines that will not only do the job better, but will also understand better than we can how the job needs to evolve. The jobs we may apply for 10 years from now don’t on the whole exist yet, so we can’t properly prepare for them, and the best we can do is acquire every possible transferable skill and find out what will still need real human interaction; unless robots get better than us at that too. And watch that toaster, it’s online, smart, and may be planning to do away with you so it can watch daytime TV rather than bother with your nutrition.

That sort of thing.

As with everything else, the best thing to do when you encounter breathless hype is to take a step back and think about what you are being told. There is no doubt that the digital world is moving at a fast pace and is changing how we do things: how we communicate, how we analyse, how we adapt our technology to improve safety and efficiency, how we access news. The ‘internet of things’ is creating smart gadgets and appliances. Big data is yielding insights and solutions that eluded us in the past.

But the use of science and technology to effect social and industrial change is not new, nor are we now witnessing profound and speedy change for the first time in history. The development of the printing press and the use of paper to allow high-volume dissemination of its outputs probably produced a bigger social upheaval than anything we are seeing today: suddenly information and knowledge were no longer the private property of the elite, and absolutely everything changed. The (first) Industrial Revolution totally changed the way we live and work, in particular by opening up mass transport and urbanisation, putting an end to agrarian societies with feudal structures, and ushering in the age of capitalism with its attendant consequences, good and bad. The two world wars of the 20th century changed global politics beyond recognition. Contraception changed social interaction and opened up the workforce.

It may be interesting to observe that while a typical person, not from any social elite, would have had a fundamentally different life in the 19th century from what a similar person might have had 100 years earlier, the life we live now is not so fundamentally different from that experienced in the post-war 20th century. The technology has changed and allows us to do things that we couldn’t have done before or which would have been much more laborious, but socially and culturally our experiences are still recognisably similar. What is it that makes us think that the next few years will be so totally different?

We have always been bad at predicting the future, particularly where technology is involved. This is in part because we sometimes predict the future with the same kind of sensibility we apply to science fiction, including the desire to get a thrill from something really horrible. So when Elon Musk makes our flesh creep at the prospect of the spread of malignant artificial intelligence, he is tapping into the same fascination that gave us the Terminator movie franchise a couple of decades earlier. And to be honest, I’ve got sick of the statement (by now a real cliché) that 40% (or whatever your preferred percentage is) of jobs in demand in 10 years time don’t exist today. Well, maybe they don’t, but history doesn’t support this proposition: what job known to you now didn’t exist 10 years ago? Jobs may change in what they demand of those doing them, but that is a natural process of evolution.

This blog post is not an invitation to go into denial about the pace of change today. There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla – even the possibly departed Cambridge Analytica – are changing all sorts of things in our lives. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind. In that process, we do well to look at some of the social fundamentals, such as how we can protect the integrity of truth in the face of all-out assaults by those wanting to manipulate us, and perhaps worry a little less about what our toaster might get up to. Even if the latter is more fun, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.

Icon of another age

May 2, 2018

If he were still alive, Ralf Dahrendorf would have celebrated his 89th birthday yesterday.

I fear that many readers of this blog will not know who he was, but Dahrendorf was a key political and intellectual figure of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Hamburg in 1929, and in the course of a full life he was active in the anti-Nazi resistance (and was sent to a concentration camp in consequence), became a German politician (in the Free Democratic Party), was a European Commissioner, was appointed Director of the London School of Economics and later Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and was a Research Professor in Berlin. He was awarded national honours in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom; in Britain he became a life peer, taking the title Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market. He died in Germany in 2009.

As a writer and thinker, Dahrendorf engaged strongly with different political traditions, focusing on social equality and integration in his key works. His analysis of this is contained in his seminal bookClass and Class Conflict in Industrial Society.

The political and intellectual tradition to which Dahrendorf belonged and which informed his thinking has not fared well since his death. I suspect he would have been horrified by Trump and Brexit, but also by the language and actions of those making up the opposition to both. We now have an angry society that looks everywhere for treachery and deceit, and has little time for cohesion and a common purpose.

It would be good if Ralf Dahrendorf, and others like him, were not forgotten.

No place for racism

April 16, 2018

A recent survey carried out by The Student Room (an online resource) found that over half of all UK university students have witnessed racism in the course of their studies, with 10 per cent encountering racism on a daily basis. Equally significant are the forums on The Student Room, with contributions there showing that a number of contributors do not appear to be clear what does and does not constitute racism.

It is perhaps part of an alarming and growing ambivalence in our wider society about what racism is and why we need to combat it. This ambivalence is given oxygen by those, for example, who suggest that discussions about the history of the colonial age are just manifestations of excessive political correctness, or those who seem not to be able to recognise the evil nature of antisemitism.  This bleeds into the question of what we can legitimately discuss, as distinct from what we endorse.

The integrity of society is seriously at risk if we start to believe that racist attitudes can be domesticated by euphemisms or justified by apparently neutral concerns (such as concerns about housing, urban violence, and so forth) which are in fact focused on specific racial or migrant groups.

Universities must have a special responsibility to combat racism. They need to be places of civilised values and interpersonal respect. That is where we need to start and finish. Finding the right way of doing that is not easy. And as the Student Room survey has shown, we are not nearly there yet.

Understanding migration

April 2, 2018

Migration has become one of the central issues of modern politics. It is arguable that it was the key driver of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, and it may well have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election. Of course not everyone who based their votes on concerns about immigration will have done so for the same reasons. Some will have been concerned about pressures on social services; some will have believed that immigration drives up indigenous unemployment; some will have had concerns about the erosion of local tradition and culture; some (and I believe, very few) will have been motivated by racism. Some will have wanted to have little or no immigration at all (which was pretty much the position of UKIP in the UK), some will have been less concerned about numbers than about processes.

It is however important to say to those who believe that immigration is a dangerous new development and that it has a detrimental economic and social impact that there is little evidence to support their views. Mass immigration is certainly not new. In fact, if it were new I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Every country you are likely to have ever lived in or visited has a population built on historical mass migration. All of Europe got its ethnic mix – including its cultures, languages and national identities – from the Völkerwanderung of the first millennium. The UK itself is, in ethnic terms, the product of invasion and migration; there is little left of any earlier population. Interestingly these mass movements on the whole eradicated prior cultures, which is not something that today’s migration tends to do. And of course, the United States of America owes its entire identity to immigration.

There is also little evidence that mass migration is economically or socially bad. Almost everywhere, including in the UK, it has stimulated rather than depressed economic activity and employment. Indeed it is pretty clear that any sudden drop in immigration would have dangerous economic consequences, and would place considerable strain on public finances, particularly in relation to pensions.

It is important to say to those who believe in the retention of a fairly insulated ethnic composition and culture that this is not possible. Global travel and global economic activity have increasingly ruled it out, and advanced economies will necessarily be magnets for migration, and will need this migration to prosper. The only sensible discussion should be about how to manage this, and in what circumstances and by what means to constrain it. Numerical targets for net migration are unwise; no government can deliver on these.

For all that, unrestrained and unmanaged migration is not realistic either, but the management of migration will not be successful if it starts from the premise that immigration is bad and needs to be stopped. Politicians need to be honest with the people about the benefits of immigration and the ways it can be made to work. Allowing people to believe that there could be a return to some mythical history in which indigenous culture was unaffected by migrants is dishonest.

I have worked in universities for forty years. None of what we value in higher education would have been possible without significant academic migration. It is time to realise that this is true more widely, not only of universities.

Island stories

March 20, 2018

This blog is coming to you from the Orkney Islands, more specifically from Kirkwall. I am here to discuss with government agencies, the local council and partner universities the role we might play in developing a high-value innovation agenda for Orkney, thereby increasing its prosperity but also its attractiveness as a place in which to live or invest.

Like many islands, Orkney has a long history of cultural and economic activity, but a less certain future. But islands are important centres of human culture and endeavour and deserve to be supported and protected. They are also wonderful locations for biodiversity.

Orkney in particular is fascinating. Unlike Scotland’s western islands (the Hebrides), Orkney’s (and Shetland’s) ancient history is not Celtic but Norse; in historical terms it only joined Scotland relatively recently. But its contribution to Scotland is enormous, particularly in the arts and in the creative industries. This is a good place for universities to provide the kind of support that normally goes to city regions. That way Orkney will leave an even greater legacy to future generations.

PS. The Italian Chapel pictured above has a particularly interesting history. You can read more about it here.

Where would you find the higher education elite?

February 27, 2018

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.