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?1 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.2

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Bureau d’Etudes, Autonomous Knowledge and Power in a Society without Affects. []

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.

The relationships between technology and open education in the development of a resilient higher education

Richard Hall and I are presenting at the OpenEd10 conference next week. Here’s a few slides that Richard has just put together. The paper can be downloaded here.

UPDATE: Here’s the video recording of our session. We ditched the slides.

Conference paper for OpenEd 2010 on technology, resilience and open education

I have written a paper with Richard Hall for the Open Education conference in November. You can download it here: Technology, open education and a resilient higher education. Of course we welcome all comments and criticism. Here’s the conclusion from the paper:

Open forms of HE are crucial in our overcoming of socio-economic disruption, and in framing spaces for personal and communal resilience. A key role for open curriculum development is the critique of hegemonic discourses and the contexts in which they emerge so that they can be challenged, and so that co-governance as well as co-production can be enabled and tested. A key role for technology, in a world of increasing uncertainty, where disruption threatens our approaches, is to enable individuals to engage in authentic partnerships, in mentoring and enquiry, and in the processes of community and social governance and action.

There is still a risk that the provision of frameworks for free associations between individuals will leave some people marginalised, and the creation of appropriate contexts that spark or forge opportunities for participation is pedagogically critical. Equally, the tensions evoked within institutions around, for instance: the ownership of technology; the openness of networks and practices; the structures of management data; engagement with communities at scale; and the validation/accreditation of curricula; need to be addressed. Despite these tensions, the capacity of technology to improve the opportunities for people to work together to shape and solve problems, and to further their critical understanding of themselves and of the world they live in, is significant.

Technology underpins the development of an open curriculum for resilience in three key areas.

I. The enhancement of student-agency, in producing both relationships within and across open communities, and open, socially-situated tasks is important. The student’s power-over the tools she uses and her power-to negotiate agreed socio-cultural norms is fundamental here, although issues to do with social anxiety, difference, self-conception and allegiance within closed groups, and the marginalisation of certain users, form potential risks. However, a modular approach to the use of technology for agreed tasks in meaningful networks is one aspect of defining resilience.

II. Re-framing HE experiences as open, in order to allow learners to test their self-concept is critical. Educational technologies offer an array of supportive networking contexts where learners can model practice and self-expression. Formative development is ongoing and demands a range of open engagements on a range of tasks with a range of roles in a range of networks. This diverse learning approach is a second aspect of defining resilience.

III. Feedback for learning from multiple perspectives underpins authentic personal development. Technologies facilitate near real-time feedback and enable the student to recognise the impact of her actions, which is a third aspect in the definition of resilience.

In this tripartite approach, the production and re-use of artefacts is of secondary importance to the social relationships that are re-defined by educators and students, and the focus on people and values that is in-turn assembled through open education (Lamb, 2010). In overcoming alienation and disruption, a resilient open education enables us to critique institutionalised forms of education. The challenge is to develop such a critique.

Notes on Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology’

I absorb ideas better when I take notes. Here are my notes on Heidegger’s essay, The Question Concerning Technology1. Elsewhere, there’s also a comprehensive guide to the essay and a useful blogged summary.

I’ve got to say, it’s one of the most difficult texts I’ve ever read, despite going between two translations in the hope of a little clarity. However, while he seems to spin a syntax of his own at times, Heidegger’s overall message is pretty clear and simple: The poetic roots of technology have been obscured by mechanisation that has compelled us to harness nature’s energy into an accumulated homogeneous reserve that conceals the true nature of things. In this world, humans too, have become resources, slaves to a process that constructs an appearance of truth rather than a revelation of the real. The solution is to question and confront technology through its forgotten roots in the arts.

Heidegger’s 32 page essay was originally a series of lectures he gave in 1949, entitled: The Thing, Enframing, The Danger, and The Turning. He begins by setting out the reasons for his questioning:

Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is one of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary. We shall be questioning concerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology. When we can respond to this essence, we shall be able to experience the technological within its own bounds.

Heidegger is concerned with questioning the essence of technology and in particular, modern technology, which he understands as something different to older, pre-industrialised forms of technology. The difference, to put it crudely, is that our technological relationship with nature was once as one of steward but now is one of both master and slave. The purpose of questioning technology is therefore to break the chains of technology and be free, not in the absence of technology but through a better understanding of its essence and meaning. He suggests that there are two dominant ways of understanding technology. One is instrumental, to view it as a means to an end, while the other is to see it as human activity. He thinks they belong together.

For to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity. The manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve, all belong to what technology is. The whole complex of these contrivances is technology. Technology itself is a contrivance—in Latin, an instrumentum.

The current conception of technology, according to which it is a means and a human activity, can therefore be called the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.

The instrumental view rests on a view of causality, which he breaks down into four Aristotelian causes: the material, the form, the end, and the effect. These four aspects of causality are in fact four aspects of ‘being responsible for bringing something into appearance’. They reveal that which was concealed. They are different but united by their revealing.

What has the essence of technology to do with revealing? The answer: everything. For every bringing-forth is grounded in revealing. Bringing-forth, indeed, gathers within itself the four modes of occasioning— causality—and rules them throughout. Within its domain belong end and means as well as instrumentality. Instrumentality is considered to be the fundamental characteristic of technology. If we inquire step by step into what technology, represented as means, actually is, then we shall arrive at revealing. The possibility of all productive manufacturing lies in revealing.

Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e., of truth.

Discussing techné, the root of ‘technology’, he observes that it encompasses both the activities and skills of the craftsman but also the arts of the mind and fine arts and concludes that techné “belongs to bringing-forth, to poiésis; it is something poetic.” Techné is also linked with the word epistémé and Heidegger states that both words “are names for knowing in the widest sense. They mean to be entirely at home in something, to understand and be expert in it.”

Such knowing provides an opening up. As an opening up it is a revealing. Aristotle, in a discussion of special importance (Nicomacheun Ethics, Bk. VI, chaps. 3 and 4), distinguishes between epistémé and techné and indeed with respect to what and how they reveal. Techné is a mode of alethéuein. It reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another. Whoever builds a house or a ship or forges a sacrificial chalice reveals what is to be brought forth, according to the terms of the four modes of occasioning. This revealing gathers together in advance the form and the matter of ship or house, with a view to the finished thing envisaged as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of its construction. Thus what is decisive in techné does not at all lie in making and manipulating, nor in the using of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techné is a bringing-forth.

Thus the clue to what the word techné means and to how the Greeks defined it leads us into the same context that opened itself to us when we pursued the question of what instrumentality as such in truth might be.

Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where alétheia, truth, happens.

Heidegger pre-empts the accusation that this view no longer holds true for modern, machine-powered technology.  In defence, he argues that modern technology, in its mutual relationship of dependency with modern physics, is also ‘revealing’.

Modern physics, as experimental, is dependent upon technical apparatus and upon progress in the building of apparatus. The establishing of this mutual relationship between technology and physics is correct. But it remains a merely historiological establishing of facts and says nothing about that in which this mutual relationship is grounded. The decisive question still remains: Of what essence is modem technology that it thinks of putting exact science to use?

What is modern technology? It too is a revealing. Only when we allow our attention to rest on this fundamental characteristic does that which is new in modern technology show itself to us.

However, the revealing of modern technology differs from that of earlier, non-machine-powered technology, in a fundamental way. It is not a revealing, an unfolding in the sense of poiésis, “the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.” He then leaps into some illustrative examples:

But does this not hold true for the old windmill as well? No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it.

In contrast, a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out of coal and ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In sowing grain it places seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set up to yield atomic energy, which can be unleashed either for destructive or for peaceful purposes.

This setting-upon that challenges the energies of nature is an expediting, and in two ways. It expedites in that it unlocks and exposes. Yet that expediting is always itself directed from the beginning toward furthering something else, i.e., toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense. The coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been produced in order that it may simply be at hand somewhere or other. It is being stored; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.

All technology reveals, but modern technology reveals not in the unfolding poetic sense but as a challenge; it sets upon nature and expedites its energy by unlocking it.

The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging–forth. Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing. But the revealing never simply comes to an end. Neither does it run off into the indeterminate. The revealing reveals to itself its own manifoldly interlocking paths, through regulating their course. This regulating itself is, for its part, everywhere secured. Regulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the revealing that challenges.

Once unlocked, this energy (raw or in the form of machine-powered technology) is held captive as a standing reserve. The airliner standing on the runway is a stationary object ordered to be ready for take-off. However, this apparent mastery over nature’s energy is no such thing because we are challenged, ordered, to act this way. We, in fact, like the airliner on the runway, are situated in the ‘standing reserve’ as human resources.

The forester who measures the felled timber in the woods and who to all appearances walks the forest path in the same way his grandfather did is today ordered by the industry that produces commercial woods, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand. Yet precisely because man is challenged more originally than are the energies of nature, i.e., into the process of ordering, he never is transformed into mere standing-reserve. Since man drives technology forward, he takes part in ordering as a way of revealing.2

In this way, we are challenged by modern technology to approach nature “as an object of research” to  reveal or “order the real as standing reserve”. Heidegger refers to this as enframing. Enframing is the essence of modern technology.

Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means the way of revealing that holds sway in the essence of modern technology and that is itself nothing technological. On the other hand, all those things that are so familiar to us and are standard parts of assembly, such as rods, pistons, and chassis, belong to the technological. The assembly itself, however, together with the aforementioned stockparts, fall within the sphere of technological activity. Such activity always merely responds to the challenge of enframing, but it never comprises enframing itself or brings it about.

There then follows a couple of pages which reflect on the relationship between physics and modern technology. As a 17th c. precursor to 18th c. modern technology, physics is a theory which sets up nature in a way that orders it in a coherent, self-serving manner. It is not experimental because “it applies apparatus to the questioning of nature.” The physical theory of nature is the herald of modern technology, which conceals the essence of modern technology. Technology then, in its essence as enframing, precedes physics.

Modern physics… is challenged forth by the rule of enframing, which demands that nature be orderable as standing-reserve. Hence physics, in its retreat from the kind of representation that turns only to objects, which has been the sole standard until recently, will never be able to renounce this one thing: that nature report itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remain orderable as a system of information. This system is then determined by a causality that has changed once again. Causality now displays neither the character of the occasioning that brings forth nor the nature of the causa efficiens, let alone that of the causa formalis. It seems as though causality is shrinking into a reporting—a reporting challenged forth—of standing-reserves that must be guaranteed either simultaneously or in sequence… Because the essence of modern technology lies in enframing, modern technology must employ exact physical science. Through its so doing the deceptive appearance arises that modern technology is applied physical science. This illusion can maintain itself precisely insofar as neither the essential provenance of modern science nor indeed the essence of modern technology is adequately sought in our questioning.

Heidegger’s use of language (or rather the way it is expressed in English translation) can be difficult at times. In the remaining few pages he discusses what enframing actually is, building upon the idea that as the essence of technology, it is therefore that which reveals the real through ordering as standing reserve. As discussed above, we humans are challenged forth (compelled) by enframing to reveal the real in a seemingly deterministic way (Heidegger refers to this as destining) that holds complete sway over us. However, technology is not our fate, we are not necessarily compelled along an unaltered and inevitable course because “enframing belongs within the destining of revealing” and destining is “an open space” where man can “listen and hear” to that which is revealed. Freedom is in “intimate kinship” with the revealed as “all revealing comes out of the open, goes into the open, and brings into the open… Freedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way.” Freedom then, is to be found in the essence of technology but we are continually caused to believe that the brink of possibility is that which is revealed in the ordering processes of modern technology to create the standing reserve, deriving all our standards from this basis. Freedom is continually blocked by this process of the destining of revealing which obscures the real. This is a danger.

It is a danger because when the real is concealed it may be misinterpreted. When something is unconcealed it no longer concerns us as an object but, rather, as standing reserve “and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing reserve”. When the object is lost to the standing reserve, we ourselves become standing reserve and see everything as our construct, seeing not objects everywhere but the illusion and delusion of encountering ourselves everywhere.

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to on the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

But enframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is. As a destining, it banishes man into the kind of revealing that is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing. Above all, enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiésis, lets what presences come forth into appearance.

Enframing blocks the truth and destining compels us to create order out of nature which we believe is the truth. This is the danger, not of technology, which itself cannot be dangerous, but rather of the destining of revealing itself. Enframing, the essence of technology then, is the danger.

The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

Drawing on Holderlin, Heidegger believes that technology’s essence contains both the danger (enframing) and its saving power. How is this so? Enframing is not the essence of technology in the sense of a genus, “enframing is a way of revealing having the character of destining, namely, the way that challenges forth.” Recall that the revealing that “brings forth” (poiésis) is also a way with the character of destining. By contrast, enframing blocks poiésis.

Thus enframing, as a destining of revealing, is indeed the essence of technology, but never in the sense of genus and essentia. If we pay heed to this, something astounding strikes us: it is technology itself that makes the demand on us to think in another way what is usually understood by “essence.”

As we have seen, the essence of modern technology for Heidegger is enframing and as its essence, enframing is that which endures. Enframing is “a destining that gathers together into the revealing that challenges forth.” But Heidegger also states that “only what is granted endures” and “challenging is anything but a granting.” So how can the challenging of modern technology be resolved into that which is granted and endures? What is the saving power “that let’s man see and enter into the highest dignity of his essence”? The answer is to recall that enframing need not only challenge forth but can also bring forth the revealing of nature.” The essential unfolding of technology harbors in itself what we least suspect, the possible rise of the saving power.”

Heidegger argues that “everything depends” on our ability and willingness to cast a critical eye over “the essential unfolding” of technology. That instead of “gaping” at technology, we try to catch sight of what unfolds in technology. Instead of falling for the “irresistibility of ordering”, we opt for the “restraint of the saving power”, always aware of the danger of technology which threatens us with the possibility that its revealing, saving power might be “consumed in ordering  and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing reserve.”

So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it. We press on past the essence of technology… The essence of technology is ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e., of truth.

Now at the end of his essay, we can see there are two possible direction one might take with technology:

On the one hand, enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the propriative event of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth.

On the other hand, enframing propriates for its part in the granting that lets man endure—as yet inexperienced, but perhaps more experienced in the future—that he may be. the one who is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth. Thus the rising of the saving power appears.

Heidegger concludes that technology once shared the root techné with a broader practice of poiésis. Technology (techné) brought forth and revealed that which was true and beautiful through the poetics of the fine arts. It is in the realm of the arts, therefore, that we can practice the questioning of technology in the hope of revealing the truth, which modern technology habitually conceals through the order it imposes on the world.

Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.

Such a realm is art. But certainly only if reflection upon art, for its part, does not shut its eyes to the constellation of truth, concerning which we are questioning.

  1. I found this online version slightly easier to read than the version in the book of the same name. []
  2. I wonder what Marx would have to say about this. It sounds to me like Heidegger is referring to the imperative of capitalist laws of motion. cf. Ellen Meiksins Wood []

On blogging…

I was just asked by our Press Office to provide them with a short comment on blogs and blogging. Here’s what I sent them. How did I do? What would you have said in 150 words?

Blogging takes various forms but broadly speaking it is a form of web-based self-publishing. Prior to the web, it was difficult and costly for people to publish and distribute their thoughts and their work widely.  With the advent of the web, it became easier, but still required some technical knowledge to author and publish a web site.

Blogging represents a maturing form of web authoring, where the software makes it easier for anyone capable of using a word processor to author, publish and distribute their thoughts and work to others.

But it’s not simply about web publishing. Blogging is a powerful network – the ‘blogosphere’ – where a multitude of blogs (and therefore people) are connected through a web of mutual references, discussions, links and ideas. The web liberated the global exchange of knowledge. Blogging is liberating the conversation around that knowledge and providing a space for the creation of new forms of knowledge, too.

Revisiting ‘Thinking the unthinkable’

In October, I wrote a post which gave an overview of a (failed) bid to JISC.

“What will happen to the provision of a technology dependent education when energy consumption is restricted by recurring interruptions in supply and significant spikes in costs?” This project aims to address this question by re-framing ‘Sustainable ICT’ within the context of an imminent crisis in energy supply. As we increasingly turn to ICT to enhance, support and deliver education and research, the prospect of an energy crisis within the next ten years becomes crucially important to our sector, its partners and stakeholders. The project will use JISC’s Scenario Planning tools to address this crisis and examine the wider energy context, which fuels the UK’s industrialised and globalising model of Higher Education.

I have added the feedback I received as a postscript to the original post. Needless to say I was disappointed that it did not receive funding at that time, but very encouraged by the positive response I received from the evaluation panel.

Since submitting the bid, I have continued to pursue this area of research and wanted to reflect on the last four months of intensively reading around the subject of energy, climate change and, to a lesser extent, the resilience of HEIs. I have written about some of this in other posts, but think that a summary update would be useful for me to gather my thinking and perhaps be of interest to you, too. I should say upfront, that today, as I write, I’m not especially optimistic about the ability for the tertiary education sector to continue in its current form beyond the end of this decade (mainly due to increasing economic pressures) and hope that I offer enough reasons below to motivate other people to join Richard Hall and I, in pursuing this research further.

Peak Oil (or an oil ‘supply crunch’)

As I was writing the original research bid, The UK Energy Research Centre published their Global Oil Depletion Report, a massive survey of recent literature on the subject of Peak Oil. They concluded:

On the basis of current evidence we suggest that a peak of conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.

As I’ve noted before, there is reason to suggest that oil production has already peaked, since supply has effectively plateaued  since 2005, despite the annual price of oil steadily increasing in the midst of significant price volatility.

Since the UKERC report, there have been other notable reports which forecast a peak in oil production by 2020. For example, yesterday the Peak Oil Task Force, a group of six UK companies, including Virgin, Scottish and Southern Energy and Stagecoach, published a report which warns of the “urgent, clear and present danger” of an ‘oil crunch’ by 2015:

The next five years will see us face another crunch – the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well. As we reach maximum oil extraction rates, the era of cheap oil is behind us. We must plan for a world in which oil prices are likely to be both higher and more volatile and where oil price shocks have the potential to destabilise economic, political and social activity. Virtually every sector of our economy is still dependent on oil.

This follows several other recent reports and warnings. For example, a Chatham House report forecasts a 2013 peak, the NGO, Global Witness, warns of an imminent supply crunch; Petrobras, Brazil’s oil company, a 2012 oil crunch; the CEO of Total SA, forecasts a peak by 2015Shell’s CEO likewise forecasts an end to easily accessible oil by 2015Chevron are vague on the date (2012?), but issued [PDF] a clear warning in 2005; the former VC of  Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest producer of oil, has said that oil production has peaked and is currently on a plateau. The International Energy Agency (IEA), representing OECD countries, has warned of an oil crunch from 2011, with production peaking by the end of the decade.

The conventional economic theory of demand destruction caused by the rising price of oil has had very little effect on the amount of oil consumed and conversely, price rises and therefore opportunity for investment over the long-term and incentives to produce more to sell in the short-term, have not resulted in a rise in oil production. Between 2002-5, “for every dollar increase in oil prices, three year cumulative global crude oil production increased at 167 mb per dollar.” However, between 2006-8… “for every dollar increase in oil prices, three year cumulative global crude oil production fell at 15 mb per dollar, again relative to the 2005 rate.”1 Similarly, the ex-VC of Saudi Aramco has said:

The evidence is that in spite of the increases – very large increases – in oil prices over the last four years, we haven’t been able to match that with increasing capacity. So, essentially, we are on a plateau.

Energy Security

In the original bid to JISC, I framed the problems of Peak Oil and Climate Change as potentially serious impacts on the operation of HEIs and therefore the provision of tertiary education in the UK. Energy security is a broad term that covers the supply and distribution of the different fuels that we need to fuel a growing economy. Global economic growth (GDP) is closely coupled to the global consumption of oil, and while there are indications that the demand for oil by OECD countries has started to decline, global demand is still expected to rise because of the demand by developing countries.

So we have a situation where the global demand for oil will outstrip the available supply of oil, therefore impacting on economic growth. On today’s Financial Times ‘Energy Source‘ blog, Geologist, Colin Campbell was quoted from 2006, saying:

I think we are facing an oil price shock, 100 or 200 dollars a barrel, an economic recession that cuts demand, and I will not be at all surprised if a fall in demand would make the price collapse again. So we might be back to 20 or 30 dollars a barrel next year perhaps. And so you have a price shock, a recession, a recovery, hits again the falling capacity limit, another price shock. And so I think that in the next few years, we have a sequence of vicious circles and gradually the reality of the situation will filtered through. We are on for a very volatile few years with enormous economic consequences.

The FT reporter thinks this view is “on the money” and I am inclined to agree, too.

Peak Oil is not the only energy security problem that we face over the next decade. The year 2016 is commonly given as the point where our national infrastructure, in it’s current form, can no longer supply the energy we demand.

Planned closures of ageing nuclear plant and the removal, by the end of 2015, of a significant amount of coal and oil-fired power stations under European environmental legislation is likely to lead to a large fall in the electricity capacity margin.2

Ofgem’s recent Project Discovery project produced four market scenarios for the UK’s energy future. Their worse case scenario, as I’ve touched on before, is a ‘dash for energy’ scenario3, where “the recession proves short-lived. Demand bounces back strongly and then increases over time, although investment levels take some time to become re-established following the hiatus caused by the credit crisis.” The costs of this to consumers would be a 60% increase in energy bills by 2020.4

However, in December, after consultations with energy companies and academics, the Chief Executive of Ofgem thought that this was “too optimistic”. Conversely, earlier this month, Ofgem issued a warning that bills could rise by 20% over the next decade, presumably because they do not now expect a ‘dash for energy’ scenario, but rather an economic outlook of slow growth.

Ofgem conclude that we have a narrow window until 2013 to implement policy to address supply security from 2016:

Although our scenarios do not indicate concerns over supply security until beyond the middle of the current decade, the timescales required to secure finance, mobilise supply chains and deliver the infrastructure needed suggests that the period around 2012 and 2013 could be important for investment decisions critical to future secure and sustainable energy supplies. Hence, there is a window of opportunity between now and then to implement any policy measures that may be necessary to make sure that investment takes place in a timely fashion.5

Whichever way I am able to understand it, the picture of energy security for the UK over the next decade looks uncertain and any response, costly. Dieter Helm, Prof. of Energy Policy at Oxford, thinks we’re in a mess and calls for “a more imaginative approach to infrastructure… The Victorians did it: the current generation needs to repeat it.”6

The rebound effect of (technological) efficiencies

One of the measures to improve the security of our energy supply is to improve our efficiency of energy use. This effectively allows us to do the same (or more), with less energy than before. The subject of energy efficiency is also closely related to our carbon reduction targets. The 2008 EU directive on Climate Change sees energy efficiencies as “one of the key ways in which CO2 emission savings can be realised.” (p. 8) The target is a reduction of 20% by 2020.

However, there is a problem when claiming absolute targets for energy efficiency, which has been studied by the UK Energy Research Centre in a 2007 review of over 500 studies in this area. The report is called, An Assessment of the evidence for economy-wide energy savings from improved energy efficiency, otherwise known as The Rebound Effect Report.

As the report notes, there have been claims in the past that technological efficiencies result in absolute and predictable decreases in energy use, just as there have been claims that such efficiencies result in more energy being used (in the latter case, this is referred to as ‘backfire’). The basic point is that while technological efficiencies in the use of energy are real, the overall result is that only part of the actual efficiency is realised in society. This is because while we save energy through efficiencies, we spend part of those savings on other activities that use up energy.

An example of a rebound effect would be the driver who replaces a car with a fuel-efficient model, only to take advantage of its cheaper running costs to drive further and more often. Or a family that insulates their loft and puts the money saved on their heating bill towards an overseas holiday.

This was first identified as the Jevons Paradox, which I have written about before. The usefulness of the UKERC report is that it demonstrates the complexity of the issue, but also that it usefully summarises the individual and social consequences of efficiencies. Efficiencies can be divided into those that have a direct rebound effect and those that have an indirect, or economy-wide, rebound effect.

An example of a direct rebound effect quoted above is where a family drive more because they’ve bought a more fuel efficient car. The report concludes that in particular circumstances up to 30% of the intended energy ‘saved’ through efficiency might be ‘spent’ in this way, particularly in areas such as transport and heating/cooling.

An example of an indirect rebound effect quoted above is where a family insulates their loft and then uses the savings in heating costs towards a holiday. The report is hesitant to draw conclusions in this area, but indicates that up to 50% (perhaps more) of the intended energy ‘saved’ in particular circumstances through efficiency might be ‘spent’ in this way. Some studies suggest much higher numbers which, they say, should be taken with caution.

The UKERC conclude that the alarming claims of ‘backfire’, where energy efficiency measures result in an overall increase in energy used, cannot be verified but should still be taken seriously. There is more evidence of this occurring when technologies are pervasive (i.e. the steam engine or electric motor).

The conclusions of the report are now of great interest to me and have confirmed the direction my research was beginning to go: that is, the relationship between energy and economic growth. I mentioned this in my original ‘Thinking the unthinkable’ post, in terms of how economic growth, the use of energy and the production of emissions are all coupled. The UKERC report puts it like this:

In developed countries, energy use as conventionally measured has grown more slowly than the economy as a whole. From this, it is generally concluded that technical change has improved the efficiency with which energy is used and thereby helped to ‘decouple’ energy consumption from economic growth. However once different energy sources are weighted by their relative ‘quality’ or economic productivity, the coupling between energy consumption and economic growth appears far stronger. Taken together, the evidence reviewed in this report suggests that: a) the scope for substituting other inputs for energy is relatively limited; b) much technical change has historically increased energy intensity; c) energy may play a more important role in economic growth than is conventionally assumed; and d) economy-wide rebound effects may be larger than is conventionally assumed.

Claims of a decoupling of energy consumption and emissions from economic growth virtually always refer to a relative decoupling, rather than an absolute decoupling.

It’s vital to distinguish between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ decoupling. Relative decoupling refers to a situation where resource impacts decline relative to the GDP. Impacts may still rise, but they do so more slowly than the GDP. The situation in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms is called ‘absolute decoupling’. Needless to say, this latter situation is essential if economic activity is to remain within ecological limits.

Evidence for declining resource intensities (relative decoupling) is relatively easy to identify. The energy required to produce a unit of economic output declined by a third in the last thirty years, for instance. Global carbon intensity fell from around one kilo per dollar of economic activity to just under 770 grams per dollar.

Evidence for overall reductions in resource throughput (absolute decoupling) is much harder to find. The improvements in energy (and carbon) intensity noted above were offset by increases in the scale of economic activity over the same period. Global carbon emissions from energy use have increased by 40% since only 1990 (the Kyoto base year).7

Despite efficiencies, energy use goes up

Despite efficiencies, energy use per capita goes up

Despite efficiencies, emissions go up

Meeting our carbon targets

While the ‘rebound effect’ may have some implications for our energy security in terms of how efficiency measures may or may not safeguard against a scenario of oil depletion and overall supply disruptions,  there are very clear implications for our carbon reduction targets. One of the issues, perhaps the biggest issue, is that of population increases, a subject that is often recognised in reports, but skirted over because of the seemingly hopeless task and political sensitivity of addressing it. Nevertheless, it needs to be recognised that population increases do contribute to overall energy use and emissions and need to be accounted for in calculations that inform Climate Change policy.

Richard Hall has recently begin to address this, referring to Ehrlich-Holdren’s sustainability equation

I = P.A.T

That is, the impact of human activities (I) is determined by the overall population (P), the level of affluence (A) and the level of technology (T). Quoting Tim Jackson, Richard writes:

However, a key problem is the dynamic of efficiency vs scale. Jackson notes (p. 3) that “Technology is an efficiency factor in the equation. Population and affluence are scaling factors. Even as the efficiency of technology improves, affluence and population scale up the impacts. And the overall result depends on improving technological efficiency fast enough to outrun the scale effects of affluence and population.” So these factors are not independent and “appear to be in a self-reinforcing positive feedback between affluence and technology, potentially – and I emphasise potentially – geared in the direction of rising impact”

A recent paper I have found helpful in terms of thinking about the UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) concludes that the Act is certain to fail, showing how the target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (and 34% by 2022) has no historical precedent. What I found useful, regardless of whether the targets are practicably achievable, are the author’s observations on population growth and economic growth (GDP).

In summary, Pielke shows that the UK’s population is predicted to grow by 0.7% per year to 2031, which would mean that the population will be around 67 million people. Extending this to 2050, we would have a population of about 82 million. He warns the reader that population growth forecasts are “notoriously uncertain, so caution should be used when using them, as actual future populations could be higher or lower.” (p. 2) He then considers economic activity and observes that the UK economy averaged 2.5% GDP growth (inflation adjusted) between 1990-2007. Combining the 0.7% population increase with a more modest 2% GDP growth rate, implies a per capita growth rate of 1.3% per year. Finally, Pielke factors in technological change and notes that according to the US Energy Information Agency, “from 2000 to 2006 UK energy efficiency increased by about 2% per year, while the carbon intensity of the energy supply was largely unchanged.” (p. 2)

Because the effects of technological change (including changes in the economy toward services and away from energy intensive industry) just about balanced the overall growth of the economy for the past decade, the UK has seen little growth in its overall carbon dioxide emissions (although the UK National Audit Office recently observed that the lack of growth in emissions is also due to accounting, as some economic activities, like air travel, are not included in official emissions numbers.

Following Dieter Helm, I’ve noted before that this method of accounting creates an illusion8 around our official emissions figures, transforming a reported 15% reduction into a 19% increase in emissions since 1990.

It seems to me that Pielke’s observations complement Tim Jackon’s reference to the I = P.A.T equation as well as the conclusions of the UKERC’s Rebound Effect report. That is, technological efficiency, although vitally important, does not, as we might expect, lead to an overall reduction in emissions or energy consumption. It merely helps balance the impacts of population growth and consumption led economic growth. Of course, if we also take into account our emissions and energy use that we outsource to industrialising countries such as China, the balance is lost in favour of rising energy use and emissions.

What is clear to me is that technology is being used as an excuse to avoid the greater issues of a broken and destructive (suicidal?) political economy and the consequences of an aspirational and growing population. Tim Jackson puts this nicely:

The IPAT equation appears to offer us broadly three ways of achieving overall reductions in energy demand (for example). One, reduce the population – not a popular choice. Two, reduce the level of affluence (again not high on political priorities – although an interesting avenue to explore at various levels as I shall suggest in a minute). And three, improve technology: specifically to increase the energy efficiency of income generation, to reduce the energy intensity of the economy.

Given the unpopularity and political intractability of routes one and two, it’s perhaps not surprising to find the mainstream response is to adopt route three as the preferred approach. Indeed an examination of the history of international policy from Brundtland onwards reveals quite clearly how route 3 allowed the world to steer an uneasy path between the demands of the North for population control in the South and the demands of the South for reduced affluence in the North. Option 3 emerges as an apparently politically neutral way through a tricky impasse.9

Our technological subservience to economic growth

Technology emerges as an apparently politically neutral way through a tricky impasse.

This single line encapsulates a great deal of what I have been trying to understand through writing these posts over the last few months and it links to a question Richard raises in his recent post:  Is this all subservient to a view of economic growth? The answer has to be yes. The production and consumption/use of technology is not politically neutral. As we have seen, all the time we pursue economic growth, technology serves the objectives of capitalism. This is evident in the long history of capitalism, just as it is evident in Higher Education today.

In short, society is faced with a profound dilemma. To resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse. To pursue it is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy or in public debate. When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple’ growth from its material impacts.

Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening. Never mind that no such economy has ever existed. Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the opposite direction. The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles. Technology will save us.

Capitalism is good at technology. So let’s just keep the show on the road and hope for the best.10

Despite the genuine and overwhelming challenges of energy depletion and climate change, technological development as a means to solve these problems, is merely a sideshow. Technological innovation and the resulting improvements in energy efficiency and lower emissions are vital responses, but do little more than offset the exponential problems of an increasing population and economic growth. I am hesitant to call population growth a problem all the while the relatively few rich consumers produce the majority of emissions11. Economic growth and and our notion of what constitutes ‘progress’ seem to me, to warrant much of our attention when considering these issues.

I think that’s where I need to go next. Only by understanding our role within capitalism can we attempt to address the problems I’ve discussed. What better place to do this than a Higher Education institution, a place where the impacts of these issues are evident everywhere and answers to these problems can be collectively sought. I recently applied to the HEA for funding in an attempt to begin to put this into practice and will continue to think along these lines.

  1. Comment on Oil Drum []
  2. Project Discovery – Energy Market Scenarios, p.5 []
  3. Project Discovery - Energy Market Scenarios, p.16 []
  4. I’ve noted elsewhere that Ernst & Young have calculated a possible 400% increase in consumer energy bills by 2020. []
  5. Project Discovery – Options for delivering secure and sustainable energy supplies, p.5 []
  6. The Challenge of Infrastructure Investment in Britain, p.39 []
  7. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, p. 8 []
  8. UK’s official CO2 figures an illusion – study. Source: Too Good to be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record [PDF] []
  9. Rebound launch: keynote presentation []
  10. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, p. 102 []
  11. George Monbiot, The Population Myth []