Bonum Certa Men Certa

How Digital Systems Fail Our Institutions

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Classroom



Average Joe "just wants stuff to work". He goes along with whatever technology is placed in front of him. For Joe, geeks fighting religious battles over technology are a curious spectacle. As a dispassionate pragmatist, he mistakes fervour for pedantry. He cannot see the serious ideological fault-lines within technology which will determine how we live, work and build societies together.

Joe is happy to be dubbed "a user", a term otherwise applied to drug addicts and insincere friends, despite actually being the person who is getting used. For him, "algorithms in the cloud" and other nonsensical tropes stand in for meaningful explanations of how his life is run by invisible others.

Joe once thought that things are run by the government he voted for, based on reliable facts he read in the press, carefully weighed in his clear mind, itself the product of an unbiased education. He believes in these institutions, whose function underwrite his existence.

But Joe's life is now determined by "digital infrastructure" increasingly concentrated in giant data-centres, under the control of unelected, profit-seeking organisations. Joe is a victim of what we will simply refer to as "systems".

A "system" can be defined as cybernetic, ecological, biological, social, political or operational. But, to use words as ordinary people mean them, a system is "increased work and stress I won't have any choice about, and won't get paid for". Systems are ever-expanding, hostile impositions. Systems are a failure of engaged, humanistic, liberal democratic life

Systems turn bad

The words "New System" strike dread into the heart of any employee. Big organisations make ideal testing grounds for inhumane systems. For example, the scandal associated with Cambridge Analyticawas really no more than a failed research project in data science, whose implications and ethics scared the crap out of the public. It was possible only because of a system, the "walled garden" called Facebook, fleecing 50 million people of their data. Since then nothing has changed and the commodification of surveillance data for influence has been normalised.

"Each September in universities, untested systems go live as administrators and students return to do battle over workflows and control of resources."At a more mundane, everyday level, institutions hold a captive audience of guinea-pigs. In academia it is students and staff, on whom we can run algorithms and experiments by decree of "policy", thus avoiding messy ethics and scrutiny real researchers would endure.

Each September in universities, untested systems go live as administrators and students return to do battle over workflows and control of resources. As timetables shift and slip into place, students scour campus corridors for elusive lecture rooms. Many hours of teaching will be lost as access systems, attendance registers, login portals, classroom AV, and assessment tools grumble and grind, then fail. Everyone will be beaten into compliance, under veiled threats alluding to "necessary regulation", "best security practices" and "higher powers" and so on. It is the will, not of any identifiable tyrant, but of "the system".

No door remains unprotected by card access, no classroom or corridor free of motion detection, face-recognition, CCTV, and no computer accessible except through a tedium of slow, draconian, security processes. Arbitrarily, at any time and without warning, centralised IT are free to alter systems and "policies" that underwrite them. They can move web pages, change login processes, block emails, remove services, target groups or individuals within a panopticon and labyrinth that would be the envy of B. F. Skinner, famed tormentor of rats.

We live with this because we have been conditioned to it, as rats who have forgotten life before the maze. Fifty years of believing computers are "necessary" has etched its mark. Of course systems are there "to help us". They offer "convenience". And foremost, they provide "security", that elusive quality we are constantly told we need, but somehow never feel we have. During thirty years of teaching, I've seen many systems introduced. The chilling effect on the engagement, openness and curious spirit of students has been palpable. Systems inhibit. Systems disable.

However, this is all fascinating for me, as a computer scientist and systems theorist, because I've had a perfect environment to study the damaging effects of encroaching systems on real people trying to do simple, timeless activities like teach and learn.

The unsurprising CHAOS report of 2018 1 tells us "most information systems fail". They deliver less certainty, less reliably and less accessibly. Five minutes using any major search engine should convince you, the game is no longer to deliver information on request, but to extract it fromyou. Search is just one example of how many technologies today are distorted and broken, operating with perverse incentives and hidden agendas counter to the wellbeing of their "users".

But even the systems we pay for work against us. The unintended consequence of the machinery to deliver cheap, fast, efficient, uniform, accountable, secure education leads in totality, to catastrophic cost for university students and professors.

It doesn't have to be this way of course. The promise of the "information age" envisioned by optimistic pioneers of the 60s and 70s, still lurks beneath the surface of society, frustrated and itching to emerge. Techrightshas been holding a torch to abusive technology for decades. Today it is joined by new projects like The Center for Humane Technology 2 and hundreds of prominent thinkers trying to reform technology against the big-money interests of Microsoft, Google and the like.

How did we get so lost in counterproductive technology? It is perplexing because we have cheaper and more powerful computers than ever. Software is for the most-part, less buggy. Yet each year our every-day experience of technology worsens. We wait longer, feel more frustrated, more scrutinised and bullied by tech, and are less productive. A new paper by Pablo Azar of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York 3 notes how "computer saturation" lies at the heart of productivity slowdown. We have too many computers for our own good now. We're at "peak tech".

"To my surprise, my experiment with teaching computer science using nothing but the benign technologies of a whiteboard pen and €£25 Raspberry Pi is an astounding success, loved by all the students."As a computer scientist I'm horrified by what I see in educational tech. Our helpless dependency perfectly tracks de-skilling and outsourcing to unaccountable cloud providers and "algorithms". As a teacher of technology, technology is now the reason I want to leave teaching. A karmic reckoning perhaps. Each semester I watch it harm our students' learning experience and feel less able to be the humane, generous, engaging mentor I'd like to be. To my surprise, my experiment with teaching computer science using nothing but the benign technologies of a whiteboard pen and €£25 Raspberry Pi is an astounding success, loved by all the students. It seems ever clearer that the university, other than as a physical meeting space, has nothing to offer.

Browbeaten by systematic, institutional technology I've witnessed students in tears because opaque "systems" have miscalculated grades, wrongly accused them of plagiarism, overcharged them, cut-off their internet, evicted them from accommodation, confused them with other students, lost assignments...

Most corrosive is the sense of helplessness. Regardless of how willing, attuned, tactful, or experienced a professor may be, having to say "there's nothing I can do, the system won't let me", is galling.

Obstructive as broken systems may be, it is the fervour of their apologists that saddens me more. Edu-tech zealots simply cannot hear that students "just want engaging in-person teaching". For them, ever more centralised learning systems, omniscient portals, blended fusion centres, and AI augmented VR technologies are the only way forward. They are enchanted.

It's said that people don't leave bad jobs they leave bad bosses. I think people leave bad systems. You can argue with a bad boss, but not a bad system. A perfect system retains the calm tone and unblinking red eye of Arthur C. Clarke's HAL computer, even as it destroys itself and those around it. It is the Microsoft system that defiantly against your will, updates itself to a "better" Windows version, and then crashes to a halt complaining your computer is not powerful enough. Nobody deserves any person or thing so chaotic and insolent in their life, and are wise to separate.

I firmly believe the precarious mental health of students is directly attributable to the brutality of systems they face daily. We've driven out humiliation and the cane from schools only to create new forms of technological violence under the pompous auspice of "preparing them for reality" - a technological reality that for Jon Askonas writing in the New Atlantic is "just a game now". 4

Why we persist with bad systems

"Over-systemisation" is not news. John Gall's "Systemantics"

5 describes man's struggle against himself through the folly of systems. They are, "solidified resistance to change" and, in Nietzsche's words, the "will to a lack of integrity". And so we must ask - since universities are about changing minds and seeking a better world through truth and integrity - what place do rigid, opaque and self-interestedly dishonest systems have in our institutions? How did they get here, and why do we keep building them?

"As technologists we retain a naive view of systems as tools to help us."One of the reasons is ideology. In no small way we believein systems. For a warning about the future we might look to history. Despite many political and economic theories, the sudden fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 remains mysterious. Misery came as much from technocratic worship of centralised bureaucracy as communist ideology. Yet it is seldom noted how collapse was hastened by the introduction of computers in 1990. Could it be that the demise of anyideology is accelerated once augmented with AI, algorithms and automation?

We know that bureaucracies of Max Weber's kind exhibit compound growth of about five percent, but forget that under Moore's Law digital systems have grown in complexity a million times. 6 What was banal but beneficent has been catapulted way beyond Neil Postman's Technocracy or even Kafka's ludicrous nightmares - by which I mean the imposition of other people's values by oblique means. Bad systems create work, push-down responsibility and suck-up power.

As technologists we retain a naive view of systems as tools to help us. In the words of Steve Jobs they are "bicycles for our minds". But few minds, even riding Jobs' bicycle, can contemplate the distance between Apple's 1984 Superbowl advert and Edward Snowden's 2013 message. It is the same distance between Kraftwerk's "It's more fun to compute" and "If you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear". It is no less than the transition from computers as tools we use, into tools used to control us.

We've come to think of software as Heideggerian technology; bare utilities to amplify the whims of our mind-body. In a competitive culture like ours, they soon become weapons ranged against each other, primed for ideological battle and information warfare rather than cooperation.

This bleak 'totalising' technology of Heidegger is all around us today, as instrumental systems that act upon us, and lenses through which we are forced to see the whole world. In that digital world they are the implementation of policy set out by power as a means of determining the behaviour of others. Ceding control of our tools to others lets them limit our capabilities.

"I think that what we teach by way of computer science, software engineering, project management, data and AI technologies, adds up to a fantasy still rooted in the 1980s, that sees the developer and "user" as agents creating an "experience", not as the subjects of systems that now control them."So are we misunderstanding "systems"? Are we teaching the wrong things about organisation, structure and planning? My duty as a sceptical professor is to deeply question the ethics and purpose of what I teach, lest my graduates only contribute to world problems.

I think that what we teach by way of computer science, software engineering, project management, data and AI technologies, adds up to a fantasy still rooted in the 1980s, that sees the developer and "user" as agents creating an "experience", not as the subjects of systems that now control them.

That's why I'll be assigning the lesser-known writings of systems theorists Norbert Weiner 7 and Donella Meadows 8 in a class on computing systems this semester. We'll ask things like:

Questioning our worship of systems permits entrenched ideologies to be rooted-out. Why do we even have such an obsession with systems?

One fault is that we confuse systems with solutions. Systems are substitutes for solutions. Solutions may be ways out of systems, but systems always beget more systems, create more problems, needing maintenance and more resources.

Building new systems is profitable. We talk about a "digital tech industry" worth trillions of dollars. In addition, the gadgets and services that flood our planet, while fun, are addictive, ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying. Despite a million-fold increase in speed, no technology is ever fast enough. Despite dizzying advances in materials science, no modern gadget is durable beyond several months.

A finite gamut of human activities like checking bus times or weather, writing a letter, or drawing a picture, hasn't changed since the 1970s. The low-hanging "killer apps" of electronic mail, spreadsheets and databases are long behind us. What is touted as "new" is rehashed technology with a new spin on extracting profit. As markets get more crowded the means of extraction get ever more brutal and invasive.

"Systems impose another insidious effect, being totalitarian."One branch of now problematic thinking grew out of the 1970s project of automation and systems analysis. Coupled with the logic of efficiency, no human action or decision may exist where a machine could conceivably replace it.

In some sense, systems represent our unrequited desire for finality, and a note of Fascism lies therein, as Heidegger noted (and some claim celebrated). One does not proclaim a Thousand Year Reich or Grand New Order as a "work in progress" or stop-gap project subject to review. Systems promise certainty and reliability in an uncertain world. As well as appealing to the authoritarian mind they temporarily assuage the anxious and insecure that their needs will be met.

But static structures are a poor response to a dynamic world. Cybernetic governance and algorithmic societies are a pale substitute for leadership and statesmanship reflecting a loss of faith in the human mind. Systems are fleeting models of a world as we wish it to be, and so all systems are permanently under attack from outside reality and internally from their own ceaseless transformation.

Add to this mix the need for economic growth and these factors add up to systems that are ephemeral yet expansive. Constantly in a state of turmoil, they reach out to every corner of life, into our shops, children's toys, cars and kitchen appliances, as an always shifting ambivalent force whose presence and absence we fear equally.

Systems impose another insidious effect, being totalitarian. The desire to create uniform, accessible services seems laudable. But that is the function of standards. Systems enforce the lowest common denominator of the parochial implementation, flattening intellectual life, oppressing difference, diversity and innovation. They represent problems which once systemised are universalised and preserved. Systems slow down actual progress.

A judge was once asked, "So, what is the best justice system?", and replied "There is no best. Only the least worst. Ideally we would not have any system". That does not mean we would have no justice. Only a fool confuses the tool with its purpose. In political science it is noted that the "The English have a system, which is no system. It's also a system, only better".

Systems of the future (The English Way)

It is time we re-imagine digital technology as utility separate from the conceit of "systems". So, how can we do that?

It turns out we already looked at this. It happened in the field of operating systems. These are the programs that make computers themselves do useful work. Operating systems underwent a series of radical evolutions in a twenty year period between 1960 and 1980.

Learning from the failure of many large monolithic systems we arrived at the "Unix Philosophy", which connects principles of clean software engineering, devolved responsibility, peer relations, and natural distribution.

This returns us to an earlier, more general and benign definition of a system, as "interacting but interdependent assemblage of elements organised toward common purposes". Note the plurality invoked.

"Their response was to wind back the clock, to shut it down by replacing user-owned systems by old fashioned monolithic systems of command and control."Such a philosophy tends toward small, reconfigurable, standardised, freely exchangeable and transparent micro-systems. Emerging in the 1980s, principles of Free Software - that the system is owned, and is directly changeable by its users - completed a broader philosophy which sparked the "dot-com" boom, and the entirety of the Internet, Web and Silicon Valley as we see it today.

A confluence of military budgets, brilliant academic minds and opportunity for growth in West coast America circa 1980, parallels the unlikely conditions precipitating the industrial revolution in 1750s England. Mirroring the latter's descent into Dark Satanic Mills, our own revolution has fallen from grace.

Like capitalism itself, a system able to create so much wealth became dangerous to those first to amass wealth and power as its fruits. Their response was to wind back the clock, to shut it down by replacing user-owned systems by old fashioned monolithic systems of command and control. Through "cloud" technologies we have regressed to the Mainframes of the 1960s. These exist today in the guise of "Big Tech" companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook. Ironically, these have colonised the academic institutions that gave birth to the very conditions of their growth, stifling the source of fresh innovation.

Desystemetisation

"De-clouding", "on prem repatriation", "de-googling", "own clouds", "low tech", "digital veganism" ... there are many emerging takes on the countervailing trends, back toward more humane and people-controlled technology.

I have written extensively, in the Times Higher and elsewhere, on what I see as the dangers of Big Tech encroaching into education.

The function of Higher Education is not to pander to industry as delegated, state-subsidised training schools, but to challenge and redefine industry, sacrificing its sacred cows for progress.

"No good university should impose inflexible one-size-fits-all products from companies like Microsoft with it's Office365, or Google's Orwellian spyware."One project I would love to see is the "zero centralised IT" school or university. It would take extraordinary courage to create, but is a place I would send my children in a heartbeat. My time as a computer expert has taught me there's much less to be learned throughtechnology than we are led to think, although it is important to learn abouttechnology. Can we create learning academies where the rules are:

Any such college will excel and set a lasting trend. It will attract staff that are confident in their digital literacy and able to work with others on a peer footing, through standards and mutuality.

For those that value the principles of education and research, freedom of enquiry, intellectual self-determination, disputation, and the dialectic between alternative views, the mission now is to push back at Big Tech and get it out of education. No good university should impose inflexible one-size-fits-all products from companies like Microsoft with it's Office365, or Google's Orwellian spyware.

The systems we use, and allow to be used on us, set the limits of our world. Allowing Big-Tech systems into our universities creates a deflationary spiral. They are not just the water in which we swim but the glass of the invisible fish-tank that contains us. Where technology is concerned let the English rules apply - the best system is no system ... which is not the same as "no technology", but better.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Edward Nevard, Daniel James and Techrightsreaders for helpful comments, corrections and suggestions.

Bibliography

Footnotes:

1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standish_Group

2

https://www.humanetech.com/

3

Pablo Azar, “Computer Saturation and the Productivity Slowdown,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Liberty Street Economics, October 6, 2022
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bb2b20316b6405766b4d8a2/t/6335bd37f804834edaa13ae3/1664466233286/MooresLawAndEconomicGrowth.pdf

4

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/reality-is-just-a-game-now

5

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systemantics

6

Conservatively 1,048,576 times, being twenty powers of two in forty years.

7

https://math.tufts.edu/people/featured-profiles/norbert-wiener

8

https://donellameadows.org/systems-thinking-book-sale/

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