Reverse imagineering ‘educational technology’

The question that has been occupying some of my thinking the last couple of months is “how is Student as Producer expressed in terms of ‘technology’ (technología)? That is, “the processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge”? (Selwyn 2011, p7)  Over the next couple of years, the Student as Producer project aims to

…establish research-engaged teaching and learning as an institutional priority at the University of Lincoln, making it the dominant paradigm for all aspects of curriculum design and delivery, and the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University’s strategic planning.

There are a number of documents that lay the theoretical and practical groundwork for Student as Producer.

Re-reading these papers, some broad themes are common:

  • History
  • Society
  • Pedagogy
  • Curricula

Within these themes, we can find the following keywords and ideas

  • Speculative thinking
  • Critique
  • Close contact between student and teacher
  • Dialectical method
  • Student as subject, student as producer
  • Make history not just knowledge
  • Relationship between intellectual and manual labour
  • ‘Common Affairs’ / ‘Everyday life’
  • Radically democratic
  • Direct communication/direct action
  • Informed by social history
  • Student designed curricula
  • University as producer and consumer of technological innovation
  • Student as personification of knowledge
  • Politics of production
  • Internet as mass intellectuality
  • Polycentric, collective intelligence
  • Social constructivism
  • Openness
  • Collaboration: Student as teacher/teacher as student
  • Connect theory with action
  • Interrupt consensus
  • Ecological sustainability = institutional sustainability
  • Social learning that transforms social context
  • Paradigm shift

In the context of a university, the technologist is interested in the ‘study of’ (logia) the art, skill or craft (techne) of teaching and learning and in the context of Student as Producer, we are obliged to  extend this interest to thinking critically about the use of ‘tools for improvement’ and recognising that their development and use is, and always has been, political and socially determined, just as ‘the idea of the university‘ has always been politically and socially determined.

How then, might we undertake a ‘reverse imagineering‘ of educational technology? What is it with technology that we are seeking to improve in education? ((It’s worth noting that the word ‘improve‘ has always been closely aligned with the use of technologies to add value i.e. profit. The Middle English improwen, meant to enclose land for cultivation, from Anglo-Norman emprouwer, to turn to profit. The OED entry lists a long and interesting list of similar uses.)) Following the objectives and techniques of ‘reverse engineering’ in hacking, reverse imagineering might be a method by which we deconstruct the complex machine of ‘educational technology’ and reconstruct a technology for education.

The deconstruction of complex machines and their ‘decolonized’ reconstruction can be carried out on all kinds of objects, not just computational ones. In the same way as you deconstruct a program, you can also deconstruct the internal functioning of a government or an administration, a firm or an industrial or financial group. On the basis of such a deconstruction, involving a precise identification of the operating principles of a given administration, or the links or networks between administrations, lobbies, businesses etc., you can define modes of action or intervention. ((Bureau d’Etudes, Autonomous Knowledge and Power in a Society without Affects.))

How do we deconstruct educational technology in order to reconstruct a technology for education? I suggest we develop a critical praxis of technology for education and that Student as Producer offers us both a theoretical and practical framework by which to undertake it.

Wikileaks and the limits of protocol

I recently contributed a chapter to the book, Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age. The Internet and Journalism Today. My chapter is called Wikileaks and the limits of protocol and can be downloaded from our research repository. Here’s the abstract.

In this chapter, I reflect on Wikileaks and its use of technology to achieve freedom in capitalist society. Wikileaks represents an avant-garde form of media (i.e. networked, cryptographic), with traditional democratic values: opposing power and seeking the truth. At times, appears broken and half abandoned and at other times, it is clearly operating beyond the level of government efficiency and military intelligence. It has received both high acclaim and severe criticism from human rights organisations, the mainstream media and governments. It is a really existing threat to traditional forms of power and control yet, I suggest, it is fundamentally restrained by liberal ideology of freedom and democracy and the protocological limits of cybernetic capitalism.

Interesting things are happening – a window has opened

Dr Dean Lockwood recently gave some lectures where he reflected on Student as Producer in the context of digital media theory. Go to the Student as Producer site for the full paper. Here’s a very brief excerpt.

Interesting things are happening – a window has opened. Let’s focus on the university. For a couple of decades and more, higher education has increasingly been pushed towards running on a business model, a market model, in which the student is understood as a consumer. The current struggle over tuition fees highlights the extent to which this model is in crisis, in common with the market model more generally. Many are arguing again, just as they did in 68, that education must be politicized, connected back up to struggles against exploitation. Here, at Lincoln, the institution of the university itself is showing signs of moving this way, or at least there is an initiative, an experiment, at large within the university which is based on the argument that those who teach can no longer remain politically indifferent. Mike Neary, our Dean of Teaching and Learning, has even gone so far as to call for an agenda for ‘revolutionary teaching’, what he calls a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (see bibliography).

This agenda has become dominated by an organizing principle for teaching and learning which goes by the name of ‘Student as Producer’, which I want to say a few words about.

Pedagogy, Technology and Student as Producer

I was recently asked to present a paper to the university’s Teaching and Learning Committee about the role of technology in the context of Student as Producer. The paper was well received by the committee and I have been asked to draw up a Business Case  which will be presented to the Academic Board and then, hopefully, for final approval by the Executive Board. Unlike this paper, which is pretty high level, the Business Case will go into more detail about what we actually propose to do and how. Comments very welcome. Thanks to my colleague, Sue Watling, for  help with the section on ‘digital inclusion’.

Pedagogy, Technology and Student as Producer


Student as Producer will have a significant impact on the work of both students and staff at the university and this paper briefly addresses the strategic role of technology and teaching and learning within the context of Student as Producer. In summary, we argue that the university can lead the sector in re-engineering knowledge creation and sharing through the open development of edgeless social learning networks, based on a methodology of peer-to-peer innovation and a commitment to digital inclusion and critical, digital literacy.

Student as Producer

Student as Producer is underpinned by progressive pedagogical theory which asserts that students can and should be producers of their social world by genuinely collaborating in the processes of research, teaching and learning. Student as Producer has a radically democratic agenda, valuing critique, speculative thinking, openness and a form of social learning that aims to transform the social context so that students become the subjects rather than objects of history – individuals who make history and personify knowledge. Student as Producer is not simply a project to transform and improve the ‘student experience’ but aspires to a paradigm shift in how knowledge is produced, where the traditional student and teacher roles are ‘interrupted’ through close collaboration and a recognition that both teachers and students have much to learn from each other. Student as Producer is not dependent on technology but rather on the quality of the relationship between teacher and student. The extent to which technology can support, advance and even progressively disrupt this relationship is therefore key.

Critical, digital literacy

Increasingly, the language of digital networks is that of ‘users’ who produce and consume ‘content’. With the availability of ‘free’ Web 2.0 tools, we are told that anyone on the web is a potential publisher of content for someone else to consume. The message from The Edgeless University (2009) is increasingly typical: In the world of Web 2.0, universities are being positioned as distinctive “resource providers” i.e. research outputs, lectures and podcasts on iTunesU, Open Access institutional repositories and and Open Educational Resources, with the expertise to “validate learning”. Student as Producer both challenges and leverages this ‘abundance’ of open resources by articulating a “pedagogy of excess”, whereby the student is encouraged and supported in being not just a student-consumer but rather a productive, critical, digitally literate social individual. In this view, technology is inclusive and understated, advocated by the institution primarily to develop the individual’s critical, social understanding and abilities which they apply to their learning and in this way technology does not become an end in itself.

Digital inclusion

Digital divides, both within higher education and beyond our institutions, derive from the social shaping of technology where technical design and implementation is influenced by organisational, political, economic and cultural factors (Bjiker and Pinch 1984, Williams and Edge 1994). Technological ‘innovation’ is often the subsequent means whereby wider social inequalities are reproduced and reinforced. For example, operating effectively within a Web 2.0 environment privileges a narrow range of access criteria and assumes pre-requisite levels of digital confidence and competence. Those who fall outside of these parameters are digitally excluded and disempowered. In the development of critical, digital literacy, Student as Producer can raise awareness of the nature and effects of inequitable digital practices and in doing so, encourage socially responsible individuals who are then able to challenge exclusive practices and ensure inclusive ways of living in society.

Learning landscapes

In itself, technology arguably has no direct bearing on educational outcome. It is the extent to which technology is understood, developed and employed within the overall social and political environment that it contributes to the social wealth, education and overall well-being of society (Downes, 2010). The typical use of technology in higher education ranges from the mundane to the instrumental to the experimental, enabling, for example, the management of courses and assessment through the Learning Management Systems (LMS), the increasingly collaborative cross-institutional nature of research through discipline-specific Virtual Research Environments (VRE) and the creation of Personal Learning Environments (PLE) where teachers and students choose technologies appropriate to their own needs and capacities. Similarly, technologies such as Blackboard, are thoroughly embedded in critical institutional functions penetrating deep into the overall ‘learning landscape’ of the university. Networked technology is now ingrained in the very ‘idea of the university’ and the social production of knowledge. It is used to both intentionally effect change (i.e. innovate) in higher education and respond to change taking place in society (i.e. facilitate). Arguably, it is not a matter of asking “what is the role of technology in higher education?”, but rather “what is the role of the university in a networked world?” (Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, 2009)

A pedagogy of excess

Student as Producer is perfectly timed to engage with what The Edgeless University states as a “time of maximum uncertainty and time for creative possibility between the ending of the way things have been and the beginning of the way they will be.” At a time when the higher education sector is being privatised and students are expected to assume the role of consumer, Student as Producer aims to provide the student with a more critical, more historically and socially informed experience of university life, which extends beyond their formal studies to engage with the role of the university and their own role in society. Pedagogically, this is through the idea of ‘excess’ where students, undertaking a critical evaluation of their subject and of their role in society, are anticipated to become more than just student-consumers during their course of research and study (Neary and Hagyard, 2010). In practice, a pedagogy of excess re-orientates the roles of staff and students to become producers of an edgeless university and creators of social wealth.

Student as Producer responds to calls for ‘edgelessness’ by asserting a radical agenda for the development and support of technology, extending the networks and spaces that we maintain to become social learning networks or, in Vygotsky’s term, ‘Zones of Proximal Development’ (ZPD), in which social learning has the potential to change the individual and their social context (Neary, 2010). We recognise the centrality of staff and students in “driving further innovation without losing the strengths of the traditional academic environment” (Learning Landscapes, 2009) and this should be coupled with the benefits that networked technology brings to the learning landscape, not only in advancing ubiquitous access to information but also the potential for challenging and re-engineering the relationships between teacher and student engaged in collaborative research.

Peer-to-peer production

To undertake this, we recommend that a flexible, cross-departmental team of staff and student peers are convened to further the research, development and support of technology for research, teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln. The team’s primary remit will be to support the objectives of Student as Producer through technology. To achieve this, it is proposed that the team has an acknowledged research and development role, and that the work of the team is theoretically informed by the progressive pedagogy of Student as Producer so as to engender critical, digitally literate staff and students. To this effect, the team will consolidate and extend the existing collaborative work taking place between CERD, The Library and ICT Services by inviting staff and students from across the university to openly contribute. The team will offer incentives to staff and students who wish to contribute to the rapid innovation of appropriate technology for education at the university, through work-experience, research bursaries and internal and external applications for funding. A core principle of the team will be that students and staff have much to learn from each other and that students as producers can be agents of change in the use of technology in education.


This proposal is supported by recent NUS data, which highlights the need for greater choice in how students learn, concerns around staff ICT competency, and the appropriateness of technology used across courses. (HEFCE/NUS, 2010). Overall, recent reports support the creation of a learning landscape where the distinction between teacher and student is increasingly fluid, emphasising the role of technology to enable collaboration and the co-production of knowledge. The multi-faceted nature of the institution remains highly valued, as does the multifarious role of the teacher. However, due to changes in the production and consumption of information in society, the student’s role is being reasserted in a new form of peer collaboration; one which we might call the ‘student as producer’.

Annual Budget Required

Digital Development Co-ordinator (Grade 8 )

Student/graduate developers (Grade 4/5) x 4

Student bursaries £4000

Staff research grants: £7000

Hardware/Software: £10,000

Conferences: £4000


Bradwell, P. (2009) The Edgeless University, DEMOS.

Downes, S. (2011) Better Education Through Technology.

JISC (2009) Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London.

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange,Vol 1, No 1.

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge.

NUS/HEFCE (2010) Student Perspectives on Technology.

Pinch, T. J. and Bijker W. E. (1984) The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. Social Studies of Science 14, 399-441.

University of Lincoln (2010) Learning Landscapes in Higher Education Final Report.

Williams, R. and Edge, D. (1996) The Social Shaping of Technology, Research Policy Vol. 25, 856-899.

Misunderstanding capitalism and OER

David Wiley has just posted about Openness, Socialism and Capitalism. Comments are turned off on his blog, so I thought I’d reply here.

David’s post makes a good point: tax payer’s money that funds research, teaching and learning, should correspond to the tax payer being one of the recipients of the outcomes of research, teaching and learning; in other words, Open Access and Open Educational Resources. He refers to this as BOGO (‘Buy One, Get One’). To most readers, I think this will appear to be common-sense.

The problem I have with David’s post is this common-sense view that ‘capitalism’ and ‘markets’ are synonymous and that if the ‘flaws’ in the market were fixed, capitalism would serve tax payers well. David makes a common error in confusing capitalism with commerce. Capitalism is a historically specific method of organising social relations among people while commerce, which sometimes takes place in markets, existed prior to the development of capitalism in the 16th century.  I found Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book on the Origins of Capitalism very useful in understanding this point. The Monthly Review published a relevant chapter from the book which is a quick read. My point here is that in simple commerce or trade in non-capitalist societies, you might have expected to get a fair return on your money, but under capitalism, you should always expect to receive something worth less than you paid for it. I paid £400 for a TV, but I know that the cost of producing and selling that TV did not cost £400. Profit is extracted at every step in the production and exchange process, making my TV cost more to me than the actual cost of that TV. Under capitalism, we accept this for the private sector, but I think that David’s point is that publicly funded goods and services, such as educational outputs should be treated differently. I agree that seems fair.

David writes about a ‘fundamental social contract that allows markets to function’, giving the example of buying a pizza. A discussion around this ‘social contract’ can tell us more about capitalism than simply referring to ‘markets’. The ‘social contract’ refers to our shared understanding of the role of private property in society and an acknowledgement of the laws in place which protect private property. When the enforcement of social order breaks down in society or when someone exists in absolute poverty, this ‘social contract’ is often ignored and we call it looting or theft. In short, the ‘social contract’, although not an explicit written contract at the time of transaction, is underwritten in law and enforced through the role of the police and to a lesser extent other social institutions, such as education. Mark Neocleous has written a nice book about this called The Fabrication of Social Order, where he discusses the historical role of the police in enforcing ‘order’ (the functioning of private property and waged labour) in capitalist society.

The main point where I think David is mistaken is the expectation that under capitalism, epitomised by the functioning of markets, tax payers should expect to receive goods and services equal to the amount that is paid in taxes: you pay for a pizza and you get the whole damn pizza; you pay for education and you get full access to education. This makes sense but in my view is a naive view of the functioning of capitalism.

One of the defining features of capitalism is the extraction of ‘surplus value‘ from the work or labour that we are forced to undertake. The basic idea is that I work 8hrs/day but the value of the output of that work is worth more to my employer than the wage I am paid for 8hrs work. This is the basis for exploitation in capitalist society, which most of us participate in. We’re all aware that capitalism relies heavily on technology to improve the creation of surplus value out of labour (Meiksins Wood writes about the word ‘improve’ – very interesting and relevant to this discussion). Marx wrote about the shift from the formal subordination of labour to capital (the creation of a labour market in early stage capitalism) to the real subordination of labour to capital: the discipline of technology on labour and the transformation of the role of labour in the production process, which in turn effects a chain of social relations throughout society, from worker to shareholder. The important point here is to recognise that capitalism is not isolated to private trade or the markets but impacts all aspects of a capitalist society. It is a social totality subservient to the production of value.

Marx referred to two forms of surplus value. Absolute surplus value is basically the value created by extending the working day or cutting rest time, forcing people to work harder and other methods of discipline such as increased supervision. A situation of high unemployment can also lead to the creation of absolute surplus value because people are forced to work for less as wages are squeezed and workers have less bargaining power. However, there are obvious limits to the production of absolute surplus value: e.g. there are only 24hrs in the day, people get sick and even die if you work them too hard, workers organise into unions and can resist downwards pressure on wages. Relative surplus value is basically value created through efficiencies and innovation. Rather than extend the working day, efficiencies are introduced into the production process which ensure that labour does more work in the same time. These efficiencies can come about through better organisation of the production process and innovation through the use of technology, for example.

Having a basic understanding of surplus value, essential to capitalist accumulation, we can now situate the role of the tax payer and public services, such as education, in the production of surplus value. Marx made the distinction between productive and unproductive labour. This is a fairly simple distinction with widespread implications: Labour employed to produce surplus value directly is productive (i.e. labour directly involved in the production of commodities). All other labour is unproductive. This includes most government employees, managers in both private and public sectors, people involved in sales, finance, etc. In this view, most of my work for a publicly funded university is considered unproductive. However, unproductive labour, although not a direct source of surplus value, is still exploited by being paid less than the value of their wage. As Fine and Saad-Filho write in their excellent introduction to Marx’s Capital,

From the point of view of capital, unproductive sectors, for example retailing or banking, capture part of the surplus value produced in the economy (and, therefore, obtain the wherewithal to pay wages, other expenses and their own profits) through transfers from the value-producing sectors, via the pricing mechanism.

Although unproductive in the sense that this work is not directly involved in the production of commodities, it is still essential work in the economic reproduction of capitalist society, e.g. educating and training workers, keeping us in relatively good health so we remain productive, loaning us money to buy a house (because we are property-less) and selling us essential and non-essential commodities.

So, in this view, the publicly-funded education sector captures part of the surplus value produced in the economy (i.e. through taxes), and uses this value to maintain institutions for research, teaching and learning. What is of interest to me (and probably David), is that since Marx’s time, the appearance (though not the fundamental attributes) of a ‘commodity‘ has changed and the term now encapsulated a much broader range of ‘things’ than it did 150 years ago. I’ll leave a decent discussion about what a commodity really is for another day, but I want to note that Marx began Capital with that discussion and it forms the basic reference for much of his work on value and labour. Research papers and books sold by commercial academic publishers are commodities and I have argued elsewhere that OERs are being treated as commodities that may or may not create value for universities. So far, I am not aware of the production of OERs (involving the application of technology to labour) actually creating surplus value for an institution (MIT appear to be breaking even with the help of philanthropic grants). When we refer to ‘sustainability’ or the ‘business case’ for OERs, I think we’re talking about the potential to create value.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that the production of OERs through institutional means seems to be very much in line with capitalist production elsewhere and I agree with David that what Martin calls ‘big OERs‘, are ‘completely compatible with capitalism’. However, I don’t agree that OERs, because they are open, are ‘completely compatible with capitalism’. I don’t think openness has anything to do with it. The institutional production of OER is compatible with capitalism because it is clearly being situated within the overall production of surplus value for the institution. When we talk about the sustainability of OERs or business cases for the production of OERs, we’re talking about how to measure the value of this endeavour and usually this is through attracting external grants and raising the profile of the institution in some way.

So, where I disagree with David is the ‘common-sense’ expectation that tax payers should expect an equal return on the taxes we pay. From the point of view of capital, those taxes are potential surplus value that has been captured and transferred away from the direct capital accumulation process (M-C-M’ : Money is invested to produce Commodities that are sold in order to create Money and so on). From the point of view of capital, taxes are captured surplus value that are reinvested into the perpetuation of capitalist society, into educating workers, keeping us healthy and so on. Once these basic responsibilities are performed through the welfare state, capital will inevitably seek a return on this surplus value captured in taxation and seek to encourage the production of more surplus value wherever possible. e.g. selling publicly funded research outputs.

So, if David and I think it’s unfair that we don’t get a fair return on our taxes, it is no surprise really. It’s just a continuation of the exploitation that most of us are forced into under capitalism, where private property and waged labour are the organising principles of subsistence. In my view, a fair return on our taxes (or BOGO, as David calls it) through openness doesn’t ‘fix a disfunction in the market’; it is completely incompatible with a society where there is an imperative (partly through competition in the markets) to accumulate capital undertaken through the exploitation of working people, be they academics, housewives, students or car mechanics.

Reading group: Marx’s Capital Vol 1 in 2011

From Howard Stevenson:

A group of us are establishing a Reading Group at the University of Lincoln – the aim  is to read Marx’s Capital Volume 1 – during 2011.

Capital is a very rewarding read – but as many of us know to our cost, a very challenging one also.  I have been defeated by it several times!  If you are a member of staff or a student at the University of Lincoln, and you would like to be involved, please email me and let me know.

When I have collected names we can agree how we want to proceed – when and where we meet, how we organise sessions etc. The broad aim is to start with the first meeting at the end of January and plan to complete the read by the end of the year.

Towards the critical study of educational technology

It therefore seems sensible to contend that academic researchers and writers should give greater acknowledgement to the influences on educational technology above and beyond the context of the individual learner and their immediate learning environment. Put bluntly, as technology-based education and ‘e-learning’ continue to grow in societal significance, then it follows that the use of technology in education needs to be understood in societal terms. For instance, this includes acknowledging the clear linkages between educational technology use and ‘macro’elements of the social structure of society such as global economics, labour markets, and political and cultural institutions. Similarly, at the ‘micro’ level of the individual, the act of technology-based learning also needs to be understood as being entwined with many other dimensions of social life. The study of educational technology should therefore be seen in profoundly social scientific terms – moving beyond making sense of the ‘science’ of learning, and pursuing what can be termed the critical study of technology-based social action and social life within the social world of education.

Selwyn (2010): Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology

I like this paper a lot. I think anyone involved in the study and/or advocacy of technology for education should read it. These days, my own research interests and developing approach sit quite well within the critical approach Selwyn is arguing for.

I’m mainly interested in how research, teaching and learning can be understood as forms of capitalist work and the role of technology in ‘enhancing’ and replacing academic work, or possibly liberating academics and students from the capitalist labour process. Methodologically, I have found Postone’s reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory to be extremely rewarding. If you’re interested, read how he understands Marx’s critical theory in this paper and how he applies his understanding to a critique of Anti Semitism and National Socialism. As a reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory of capitalism, it should be possible to use and further Postone’s approach in any sphere of capitalist life, including the various dynamics of technology and education.

If you find these as stimulating and inspiring as I do, you might like to read this recent interview with him where he discusses his study of and approach to critical theory. It’s a nice compliment to the ‘rethinking’ paper above. His major work is Time, Labour and Social Domination.

Falling in love (with libraries)

I’ve just come from the Library, having been invited to join colleagues in a day long strategy workshop, led by a nice bloke called Ken Chad. Throughout the day, we discussed library users’ needs, took a pragmatic view in assessing the work to be done, looked at the barriers we face and some potential solutions. One of the contributions I made was around the benefits of getting to know the users of our Library better and using that knowledge to further improve our library services. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What got me thinking throughout the day was a brief discussion about the role of surveys in soliciting feedback on the services we provide. It got me thinking about some reading I’ve been doing recently around ‘resilience theory’ and a key component of resilience theory is learning from feedback so as to adapt and survive. Resilience theory is a branch of the ecological sciences that “emphasizes non-linear dynamics, thresholds, uncertainty and surprise, how periods of gradual change interplay with periods of rapid change and how such dynamics interact across temporal and spatial scales” (Folke 2006). Folke lists the attributes of a resilient social-ecological system as:

  1. the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction,
  2. the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization (versus lack of organization, or organization forced by external factors), and
  3. the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

It’s the last point that interests me here. That is, the degree to which something has the capacity to learn and adapt. So, resilience theory is a theory of learning, adaptation and change. It’s not a theory of preservation but rather one of sustainability. Hopkins (2008) has likewise summarised the ‘ingredients’ of resilient systems as:

  1. Diversity
  2. Modularity
  3. Tightness of feedbacks

I think resilience theory is a theory which can be usefully applied to eco-systems, single organisms, individuals, even library systems. Anything that has an interest in longevity or sustainability in the face of inevitable change. So it seems to me that the use of surveys is an implicit admittance of failure in terms of knowing the people who you are surveying.

In our relationships we don’t issue quarterly or annual surveys to find out what people think about us. As I said in the workshop, I’ve never surveyed my wife. I listen to her, I get to know her as she changes and I change, adapt and respond to her needs. This is what it’s like to fall in love. In my experience, you meet someone and the first few months are a concentrated effort to get to know that person. Long days and late nights, talking to each other, discovering connections, sharing ideas and ideals, each person looking for a sense of surprise and delight as we unfold our lived experience in front of each other. In other words, we get to know that person and at the point or the period of falling in love, we commit ourselves to continually learning more about that person, listening to them, taking their feedback and adapting ourselves, growing old together. A relationship where neither or only one person takes on this commitment to listen, learn and adapt is, frankly, living hell.

And in a way, that’s what the most successful online services are engaging in. I’ve never been issued a survey from Google or Amazon. They don’t need to survey me, because they’ve been learning about me, with every click, every purchase, every email, every movement and decision they can track. ((I completely neglect to discuss privacy issues here. Needless to say, falling in love is quite different to being stalked.)) And using that feedback, that learning, they’ve adapted their services to respond to what they think are my needs. ((Sometimes they impose features on users and the technology can drive our actions and create artificial needs, and many of us recognise this manipulation or domination of the technology and begin to reject it, calling off the relationship. Sometimes people can become subservient in the relationship, too.)) The ‘tightness of feedbacks’, as Hopkins puts it, is essential to long-term friendships, marriages and, yes, the sustainability of library services. We need to get to the point where the feedback we receive from surveys is not necessarily perfect (what relationship is?), but is no longer of any use to us, because we already know what library users need, enjoy and are interested in. By creating a library system that learns from every person who uses it and adapts over time to the environment it is part of, we create a resilient and therefore a sustainable library system that its users fall in love with.