Sex with robots: the case against the case against Part two

Taking apart the interview, and the logic behind the argument, we get to these statements.

“Sex dolls and sex robots in the form of women and girls do something else. In the mind of someone buying and using them – they ARE women and girls. They are designed deliberately to resemble women and girls because they want the man buying and using the dolls to believe it is a woman or girl. These are markedly different things. Sex dolls and mechanical dolls in the form of women and girls play on the idea that women are orifices to be penetrated.

Imagery that dehumanises others in order to justify rule over them serves a political purpose. These sex dolls of women and girls are serving a political purpose to reinforce the idea that women and girls are sub-humans/orifices.”

“In the mind of someone buying and using them – they ARE women and girls.”

This doesn’t follow at all; it needs some evidence to back it up. The only thing we can say for sure is that someone having sex with a robot wants sex with a robot. Maybe it plays on the idea that they stand in for real women, but also it’s likely that that’s just play. There are a huge number of presumptions here, none of which are supported by research.

“Imagery that dehumanises others in order to justify rule over them serves a political purpose. ” True. This is what makes the argument such a problematic one. Dropping in valid political statements, that everyone can agree with, but then indicating a consequence that is no consequence is a standard bait-and-switch ploy. You agree with statement A and (you claim) A causes B, therefore you have to agree with B. Everyone can agree there is a systemic oppression of women in the patriarchal society. And that is formed by men with power in society. That sex dolls are contributing to this is not at all evident though. The power of this as a series of statements is that if you oppose B (because “therefore” is not proven) then somehow you are against A. It’s a specious and underhand way of carrying your argument.

What makes this “therefore” unlikely is that although men with power rule, men with sex dolls are rarely men with power. One of the areas I looked at with avatars is the role of the zeta males in many of the activities in virtual worlds. It is the men who have little or not power that compensate for this lack of power in their own lives by playing at being powerful in their fantasies. Their actions have no impact on wider society because nothing they do has impact.

OK generalisation there, which I admit. See how that works as a way to obfuscate relationships between concepts though? Zeta males have no power, only zeta males have sex with dolls, having sex with dolls therefore has no impact on society.

There may be a link. There may not. Acting on suspicions though is not really very ethical.

I suppose the bottom line for any ethical debate is do you deny a group of (some would call creepy) males’ expression of their sexuality out of caution that their actions may exacerbate the oppression all females, or not? It’s a classical deentological vs consequentialist dilemma. Do you take that chance of conducting a possibly (or even probably) unnecessary act of oppression on a minority group just to be on the safe side?  Or do you take the route of preserving all people’s rights, unless they are demonstrated to be dangerous?

While you’re considering that, I’ll remind you of another analogy. When the pigs finally get to run things in Animal Farm, they end up being just as bad as the people they replaced. Power is intoxicating, you get to control things so that you can make them the way you want them to be. When you’re in power you don’t have to worry about the consequences for disenfranchised people if you’re never likely to be one of them. Prof Richardson has a platform, the agalmatophiles do not; it is evident where the power lies in this debate.

“Four legs good. Two legs better.” should haunt anyone acquiring power; before you act check you’re not simply replicating the iniquities of those who’ve had the power before you.

A professor of ethics should know that.


Sex with robots; the case against the case against part one.

One of the sites I often read to get a good line on an ethical issue is Conatus News. It’s sort of generally progressively liberal, and usually well-argued. It offers a range of opinions, and doesn’t contest them, which is open-minded of them. Some of them, though, make my skin crawl. This article was one of them.

It’s an interview with Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR) at De Montfort University and spearhead of The Campaign Against Sex Robots. The rationale is that they exacerbate the objectification of women. I get the impression from the argument made that that’s not what’s going on.

The first alarm bells in the argument are some unsupported (and from what I know, plain wrong) statements. Here’s one:

“In the last twenty years, with the age of the ‘cyborg’ informed by anti-humanism and non-human distinctiveness, there has been this prevailing sense that humans and machines are equivalent. This implies that the only difference between a machine and a human is the ‘man who is creating it’ rather than some empirical and radical difference between a human and an artefact.”

In actual fact, if anything, the more people have looked at recreating consciousness, the more they’ve realised how essentially different the two are. While soft AI is being achieved, hard AI looks like an ever more distant, if impossible, goal. In The Emperor’s New Mind (26 years old now), Roger Penrose made some telling arguments about the differences; that no systematic machine-like process can replicate the organic creation of thought. The Turing test is being failed more often than it used to, because even though bots are being programmed better, the people judging are getting better at telling the difference. If anything, from the bits of research I’ve done, the increase is in more false positives, rather than false negatives. That is, rather than people mistaking bots for humans, people are mistaking humans for bots. Our standards for what makes something human-like are getting higher. Robots are falling behind.

Next one: “It has led to robotic scientists arguing that machines could be ‘social’ ”

This is not what social robotics is. Social robotics is looking at the elements that enable robots to fit into society, not at considering them to actually “have” society. This is a deliberate misrepresentation.

Now we come to the quite disturbing part of the argument.

“If a person felt like they were in a relationship with a machine, then they were. In this way, two seemingly different ways of understanding the world came together to support arguments for human relationships with machines. The first was the breakdown in distinction between humans and machines. The second was the egocentric, individualistic, patriarchal model (‘I think therefore I am’) – what I am thinking, feeling, and experience is the only thing that counts. I am an egocentric individual.”

One of the fascinating things about having worked in virtual worlds is that you come across a whole range of people. A lot of them are finding self-expression in ways that they couldn’t do in the physical world. A lot of them are finding ways to connect with parts of their identity that weren’t possible in the physical world. Sometimes it’s society, or it can be identity tourism. Quite a few were exploring their paraphilias.

Agalmatophilia is sexual attraction towards inanimate objects, dolls, mannequins … robots. It’s a thing. And real for the people who experience it. One of the major social movements of the last fifty years is the development of a more permissive outlook on sexuality. It’s complemented feminism, gay rights, more recently transgender rights. Even before gay rights legislation made discrimination on grounds of sexuality illegal, you’d hear homophobes say things like “well I don’t like it, but if they do it behind closed doors, then I don’t have a problem with it”. Not the best attitude, but underlies that an essential element of permissiveness is that if it’s between consenting adults, free and able to give their consent, then it’s not for us to get involved. Or to judge. If even some homophobes get that, we should be able to do even better.

“If a person feels like they are in a relationship with a machine, then they are.” “what I am thinking, feeling, and experience is the only thing that counts.” Those are positions Prof Richardson is critical of. If we are to respect all sexual expression (between consenting adults, free and able to give their consent), and we are, then we have to accept their own definition of identity, sexuality, gender, etc. That’s not patriarchal (in fact, the attitude has stood against the patriarchy in the past), it’s not egocentric (any more than respecting someone’s identity in terms of sexuality, gender, religion etc is). It’s respect.

It’s respect for people who think and feel and experience pleasure and sex differently, to think and feel differently. In ways we might feel uncomfortable in recognising. Which, I guess, is what makes it hard for the neopuritans, of whom Prof Richardson appears to be one. I assume she is otherwise why dismiss something that doesn’t meet with her recognition of legitimate human experience?

It must be tricky times for the neopuritans. Wanting to monitor and dictate what happens in private, between consenting adults (free and able to give their consent), but finding that homosexuality and transsexuality are now no longer legitimate targets. Who else is next? Let’s identify a remaining marginalised form of experience. Let’s go for the agalmatophiles. As Prof R. says later in her interview “I think, most people would agree they’re a bit creepy”. Yep like most people agreed gay people were a bit creepy a few decades ago? But if we target those that enjoy that sort of thing and dress up our distaste for what we’ve deemed are corrupt and perverse with words like patriarchy, that’ll make it look more liberal.

And if you’re thinking that wanting a relationship with a doll is a bit weird, so why stand up for agalmatophiles, there’s a poem by Martin Niemöller you need to re-read.

So yes, “two seemingly different ways of understanding the world” have come together in Prof Richardson’s argument, but those two things are luddism and neopuritanism, basically fear of technology and fear of other forms of sexuality.

There’s some more unethical opinions stated during the second part of the interview. I’ll leave them for the next post.

A Failure of Balance

The article, if you want to take a look at it, is about Lawson talking on the radio, lying about climate change. There’s of course been an uproar, quite rightly. And some moron at the BBC has said this:

“The BBC’s role is to hear different views so listeners are informed about all sides of debate and we are required to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality.”

What the absolute fuck? How on earth can a sane rational, and hopefully, educated person come out with that sort of shit? And look at him/herself in the mirror afterwards. It shows not only a basic lack of understanding about journalism, it indicates a complete failure to understand how reality works.

This is not balance:


OK that’s not entirely accurate, because there is nothing on the other side. You can only have two sides of a debate when there are two sides. When there is only one side, then to present both as equivalent is not impartial, it is highly biased towards the side which has no argument. If you want a balanced debate about climate change, have two scientists, SCIENTISTS, not has-been politicians, arguing about whether the increase is 1 degree or 2 degrees, not nobodies banging on about the latest stuff they’ve made up.

It is highly irresponsible to pass on fiction as fact. Not including lies is not being partisan, it is being a responsible member of society. Not giving them a platform is not censorship, (I’m not contradicting my previous post), because no-one’s rights are infringed by it. There is no right to pass on misinformation as truth.

And people have explained this to BBC journalists before. How do they still not get this very basic simple fact? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really don’t understand how they cannot learn how to do their jobs properly.


The Master’s Tools

I’ve been struggling with getting my ideas together for this post for a while, but today I read this quote from Audre Lourde “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. For an analysis of the context for the quote (and I’m going to argue that context is crucial for anything discussed) here’s an interpretation here.

For context for what I’m about to say, here’s where I’m coming from.

I am not particularly well-versed in political debate, I’ve not pursued it as an academic discipline, or read a lot around it. My entire philosophy or values aren’t really any more nuanced than “Be excellent to each other”. I grew up with messages that equality is important in and of itself, and diversity is stronger than monocultures (“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity and the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty” to be precise.) When reading “The Selfish Gene” I was enormously relieved to discover altruism has a pro-survival underpinning, and is justifiable using game theory. So it’s not just a belief system. Though it makes a good one.

As far as standing up for people’s rights though, I’m pretty much simply an armchair activist, partly through being non-confrontational, partly through laziness. The most extreme stance on anything I’ve ever taken is unfriending schoolfriends for being racist (yes unfriending people was a thing back in the 70s, but it entailed not walking home with them rather than disconnecting on social media) or taking a liberal stance in conversations (not that hard when you’re not hanging out with illiberal people). I think the only occasion where I’ve actually put anything on the line was being asked about homosexuality while a teacher during the Section 28 days. I said it was OK, for which I could have lost my job back then. In theory. I don’t think anyone ever did and it was a short term contract anyway, so the risks were minimal.

So, tbh my credentials on this are a bit thin. But I’m going ahead anyway.

I was bullied a lot at school, so have a knee-jerk response to anything that looks like bullying (and tend to be very partisan on those issues) and also, growing up in the seventies when culture was under the thumb of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, have a knee-jerk response to censorship. When I say “Censorship is fascism” I’m not using hyperbole, I genuinely see any attempt to control what artists or creators make as part of a movement of oppression. There is nothing in art or culture that is so bad that it is worse than the act of suppressing it. If there was one lesson I would want the next generation to learn from my experiences, it would be to have that same knee-jerk revulsion at the idea of censorship that I have.

Side story. I used to teach media studies. One series of lessons was on media effects. I showed A Clockwork Orange (on a dodgy pirated VHS as it was still banned then) and an interview with the head of the NVALA Mary Whitehouse. After the movie they all sat around and discussed the issue of banning it dispassionately. Five minutes of listening to Whitehouse and her festering ideology they were kicking chairs around the classroom. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Caveat here – I’m talking about art solely. Freedom of expression in being creative is important, being creative about facts isn’t on. Incitement to violence isn’t permissible. If you’re calling for final solutions and that sort of thing, that’s not OK either.

I’ve not been a part of any cults, but did hang out with the Cardiff Marxist-Leninists for a while (not out of any political conviction, but that’s another story). So I’ve seen up close how movements reinforce and isolate dialogue so it becomes bounded and simply reflective, and how ugly and scary virtue signalling can be when you’re part of a group that enacts it. I didn’t last long there.

Quick explanation of virtue signalling, though you can read the full one here.  Signalling theory is the idea that animals all have codes to indicate that they are members of the same herd or tribe. It’s a safety mechanism to ensure that they can easily spot an intruder. So as with any pro-survival characteristic it’s probably hardwired into our genes. When it’s applied to whether you share the same values as others it’s called virtue signalling. When used individually it’s a fastrack way of identifying whether someone is aligned with your way of thinking, and so whether is going to be a threat to your ideology. When used by a group, it can sometimes look like a blood frenzy.

So for 40 years now I’ve been supporting diversity and equality in my own small ineffectual way. It’s a relief to see that (pre-2016 anyway) there’s been a gradual improvement on those grounds. Obviously, (I hope it’s obvious) there’s still a long way to go.

What has been leading up to this particular post though is seeing a subversion of this gradual increase in liberalism by groups of people within, mainly, social media. And it’s relevant on a blog on technology because I can see how social media have contributed to it.  This came up recently in a conversation between me, a niece and a stepson. We got onto the term “Social Justice Warrior”. If you look up the definition on Wikipedia or urban dictionary (both useful sources because they’re crowdsourced, so represent the general understanding of a phrase) now, I’ll wait. When coined, the term actually referred solely to people who used a liberal discourse as a means to attack people mainly through social media, through identifying some way in which they were falling short of what they perceived as a progressive liberal stance. So for example, a rocket engineer wears a shirt with female anime characters on it (made by a female friend who liked his penchant for flashy shirts) and gets accused of demeaning women, Stephen Fry calls his friend a bag lady and gets a similar backlash. Ricky Gervais mentions Caitlin Jenner in a comedy routine and is accused of transphobia. None of those accusations stack up on examination. All of them led to people being badgered online. One of those three were tough enough mentally to shrug off the abuse. Two weren’t. The implication of the term SJW being that the superficiality, misguidedness and/or vitriol of the attack indicated the attackers were doing it because they wanted to boost their own self-importance rather than out of a genuine concern for social justice.

However, the term SJW has now been thoroughly debased by extreme conservatives who don’t like any change. Who see the media as predominantly for white males under threat and don’t like them changing. Most ridiculous, I think, has been the backlash against the next iteration of Star Trek because it has a non-white female lead and second lead in the roles. Some fans are accusing the show of selling out to SJWs, not realising that the show has always had a social justice agenda – it’s always been about diversity and inclusivity (even when it failed, it was trying). So now, the term “social justice warrior” has been conflated with people who are genuinely concerned about social justice. So it’s essentially now counter-productive to use it.

Unfortunately (for someone who likes precision), any other term could go through the same attenuation, so making up another one doesn’t help. I might as well refer to people as Type A liberals and Type B liberals, and everyone else as Type C (for Conservatives). And yes this will be a generalisation, so I will attempt to interject the word “most” whenever I remember.

Partly this suppressing, bullying effect is amplified by social media. Any one person can object to something, or raise genuine concerns about something, in a tweet or a blog. And that’s OK. But when social media enables that to be echoed and retweeted, and grouped using a hashtag, then suddenly rather than it being a single voice it becomes a torrent. The fear of being on the end of that torrent can make people highly self-censoring, and even more prone to virtue signalling to deflect any likelihood of being on the receiving end of it. It didn’t begin with social media, the same effect happened around witch hunts (both literally and figuratively). If you’re attending the house of un-American activities, or in a courtroom in Salem, or in a room above a pub in Cardiff, you soon learn to denounce the incorrect statements with the absolutely correct condemnation, otherwise you’ll be next. I think, though, that social media have made that activity widespread and quotidian.

Social media have also enabled people to find each other, and reinforce their opinions. This has been a positive thing in some aspects; look at the Labour resurgence at the last general election. People found that there were other like-minded people, who were fed up with the politics of avarice and exploitation, and wanted a change. On your own, you’re likely to give up. When you find lots of people who think similarly it gives you the confidence to continue.

There’s a downside too, though. For a long time, people have been marginalised by the system have not had a voice, and have been oppressed by others. If you’re in a society run by tall white straight affluent able-bodied southern men, you’re more likely to succeed if you’re a tall white straight affluent able-bodied southern man, and the more of those boxes you can tick, the better you will do. There can be endless debate about which of those factors will benefit you the most. They’re never productive.

Social media have now given people a share in that power to some extent. For the type B liberals, who want social justice, who want to see a more pluralist society, who want more diversity, they have presented the opportunity to push for change, and to be visible enough for that change to be brought about. For the Type A liberals, it’s also presented to the opportunity to get in on the oppression and turn it around.

One of the latest campaigns has been to try to prevent the creators of Game of Thrones from making a TV show about the South winning the Civil War around the hashtag #NoConfederate. Irrespective of whether you think the idea is offensive or not, to call for it not to be made is censorship. It is saying there are some things that cannot be made, or said. People who were oppressed are trying to employ the tool that has been the means by which they have been oppressed for millennia. WTF?

Recently there was an apology from Guelph Central Student Association for including “Walk on the Wild Side” in a playlist because it could be perceived as transphobic. Instead of saying “fuck off” at the accusations, they apologised. That’s a fear response if ever there was one.

Fear. Censorship. That’s not what a liberal progressive agenda can include if it wants to continue to be liberal and progressive.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Obviously, (I hope it’s obvious), the oppression from the right is greater still than the oppression from the left. They have more power, there is far more representation of tall white straight affluent able-bodied southern men than of anyone else in our media and a tendency to remove other representations. But when you see tactics from your own side being used to bully, censor, intimidate and shut down others it’s even more distressing, because it requires us type B liberals to actively distance ourselves from the Type As, when really there aren’t enough of us all to go round as it is. And the middle ground is not a difficult one to find; there is a nice wide path to follow between whitewashing on one side and whitehousing on the other.

My niece asked me a very good question which is “how do you tell the people who genuinely want social justice from those who are just using the discourse to boost their own egos?” I had had too much vodka to answer the question coherently at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it since. And these are the ways.

  • Is the likelihood of the post/blog/tweet more likely to increase the level of fear in society (by intimidating the person who made it) or reduce it (by acting to protect rights of the oppressed)?
  • Are you calling for a viewpoint to be censored or just challenging it (or supporting the rights of all views to be heard)?
  • Are you just reacting to a particular term or expression someone has used or taking time to understand the context?
  • Are you hectoring an individual for your interpretation of their views or giving them the benefit of the doubt? (If someone generally is a reasonable person and they slip up, they deserve a break. Obviously, if they’re an ass most of the time, go for it).

The thing in common with all of these is I think, compassion. Be excellent to each other. If you’re responding to a key phrase you object to, or are reading something objectionable into what’s being said, rather than taking the time to work out what was actually meant, then you’re not acting with compassion. To claim that you’re supporting social justice, while acting unjustly, indicates you don’t really mean it. You’re just doing it to boost your own status. Ask yourself the question, “who has the power here in this dynamic?” If it’s you, then exercise some caution in how you apply it. Give the rocket engineer a break.

I’m not going to blame social media for encouraging this. Social media are just tools for communication. The use of them is still in its early days – they’ve been in common use for only a decade, so part of the problem is we’re still learning how to use them. Entire systems of thought have been associated with single hashtags, and rebuttals for arguments reduced to the same. And each associated with the type A or type C politics. So we get hashtags like #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter bounced around like they are polar opposites, and as if each represent a particular ideology. If we were to take both of those statements literally, they are both true, and both complement each other. They’re not mutually exclusive, which is what the automatic gainsaying of the other hashtag would imply. Black people are three times more likely to be shot by the police as white people. Twice as many white people are shot by the police as black. Those two truths should both be the concern of a liberal ideology. Instead of finding common ground, the type Cs lump As and Bs together, the type As lump Bs and Cs together, and in amongst the gainsaying there is little room in the middle for reasoned debate.

Twitter itself does not help. The most erudite, humane and reasoned authors can end up sounding like complete dawks when reduced to 140 characters. The alternative is to split your argument across 10 different ones in a rowling series of tweets. Both of those misspellings are sic btw. We can’t avoid using twitter for communication, but perhaps we can avoid piling on the acrimony by simply copying and pasting the latest trending hashtag, and trying to catch people out through the terminology they use. If it’s been said once, we don’t need to jump in to prove that we’re just as right on. And maybe we should be more fearless about calling people out for behaving in a type A way, rather than being afraid of them labelling us as a Type C. Perhaps if we do that, then everyone on the left can all focus our attention against the ideologies that genuinely do oppress us.

Because there really are enough of those out there still.

The Morality of Faith Schools

About this podcast

Interesting that BBC Radio 4 is running a debate on The Morality of Faith Schools. In it they’ll be raising a series of moral dilemmas – it is an episode of  The Moral Maze after all. I suppose. In it they’ll be raising the following questions, but they all seem to have such obvious answers I can’t see how it will last 43 minutes. I can speed it up for them if they like, by giving the answers in bold.

A long-running legal battle between Ofsted and the Al-Hijrah Islamic state school in Birmingham has reached the Court of Appeal. The principle at stake is whether segregating boys and girls – for all classes, breaks and trips – amounts to unlawful sex discrimination in a mixed-sex setting. Ofsted’s lawyers argue that it is “a kind of apartheid”, leaving girls “unprepared for life in modern Britain”. The school maintains that gender segregation is one of its defining characteristics and that the policy is clear – parents can make an informed choice. The case is based on the Equality Act, which means the implications of the ruling will be far-reaching and will apply to all schools, not just state schools. Should gender segregation be allowed in co-educational faith schools? No. If it is as abhorrent as segregating children according to their race, why is the great British tradition of single-sex education not the subject of similar scrutiny? Cultural inertia. The case also raises wider moral concerns about what we as a society will allow to go on in faith schools, whether they are publicly-funded or not. Is the promotion of one dominant world view – taught as “truth” – desirable? No. Are faith schools a vital component of multiculturalism or a threat to it? Threat. Should a truly integrated society be judged on the diversity within its schools, lest they become cultural or religious ghettos? Yes. To do away with faith-based education entirely would be to do away with some of the best and most over-subscribed schools in the country. Would that be a price worth paying for a more cohesive society, or a monstrous display of religious intolerance? A price worth paying. The morality of faith schools.


“Faith schools” is itself an oxymoron. You can’t claim to educate children while simultaneously lying to them, and teaching them that thinking should be subservient to belief. As I’ve said somewhere before, to teach children about faith is commendable, to tell them that you have faith is acceptable, and that’s the extent to which religion should play in education. To tell them that God exists (when he very clearly doesn’t) is an abuse of authority and banning people from doing that is not religious intolerance, it’s child protection. Every educator should be working as much as they can to oppose the continuance of this anachronism, or get out of the profession.


Higher Education from the sidelines

This week I sent off my 13th job application since finishing my last HE post. I’m still working as a consultant developing online course content, and as an external examiner, but for three months now I’ve been able to look at the role of TEL from an outside perspective – and 13 applications means 13 institutions analysed in some depth.

Several things have struck me. Obviously even a sample base of 13 isn’t enough to form any generalisations about the sector, but I’m going to anyway.

The first is the general contempt HR departments display towards people. Not one of the 13 institutions contacted to let me know that my application had been rejected. The one I got to interview with informed me I had an interview, and then didn’t contact me again afterwards. Considering that an application takes half-a-day at least to complete, sometimes two if it’s a lengthy online form with a huge person spec, then it’s beholden on the institution to at least spend the twenty seconds it takes to cut and paste an email address to a bulk email. There simply is no excuse; and seems to be a practice solely in place to demean applicants and re-assert the power difference between employer and potential employee.

The second is how the terminology for job roles seems to be becoming more specific. At one time the role of TEL adviser could fall under any name, but now lecturer in TEL or learning developer, or academic adviser seems to cover it all. The most recent post I applied for asked for someone who was experienced in working with content developers. The idea of someone having a specialism in how people learn, and someone else having a specialism in putting materials together in a user-friendly and aesthetic way being two different skillsets seems to now be generally accepted. I had noticed this a couple of years ago the last time I was in the market for looking for a new contract; it’s reassuring to see it’s embedded.

Having said that, a worrying trend seems to be that institutions are increasingly expecting people with TEL to be able to teach about the technology itself. I’ve seen person specs which want the TEL adviser to also be able to teach programming, or teach how to use the software (I mean, just look on youtube, or RTFM), or even have a background in research into software design. I think of all the things changing in the field this is the most worrying. If you look at the leaders in the discipline they come from all over; fine arts, biology, English literature, psychology, you name it. TEL is a means to an end, but that end can be any form of teaching. It’s not that computer scientists shouldn’t can’t use TEL well in their teaching (I worked with some at Coventry), but if you’re going to advise other people and support them in using technology in their teaching, then the biggest barrier you’ll face is the idea that it’s for technical people. If you’re seen as the tech-guy (male specifically) then you’re immediately set yourself up to make that barrier even more difficult to break down. Ideally (and this is my excuse) you should be seen as someone who struggles with technology too, and is sceptical about it, but still gains something from using it in their teaching. The logic of having to understand how it works in order to be able to show people how to use it in teaching escapes me, it’s like expecting anyone teaching about lecturing to be a geologist because you’re using chalk.

Another drift I’ve seen in the field since 2015 is what (if I was a software engineer) I’d call feature creep. The qualifications required to get the jobs keeps expanding. Most obviously is Fellow of the HEA. Well I anticipated this, and am now an SFHEA. Sorted, I thought, but now added to the list for some jobs is QTS. I qualified as a teacher in 1989. I didn’t go for QTS status, even though I’d have qualified for it as I taught for five years, because it wasn’t necessary for the job back then. I’ve been teaching in HE since 2005 – roughly. My line manager at Warwick extended my role about half way through my time there (before that I was only researching) because she could see the way things were going, but I’m not sure of the precise date. So I’ve been doing that for 12 years. QTS has never cropped up before. So why now? I’m guessing it’s because it’s a means to trim applications – just pick something random that most people aren’t likely to have and you speed up the sifting process. That doesn’t stop it being frustrating however. If I’ve been doing the job for 12 years without the qualification, and doing it well, it seems like it’s not really necessary in order to do it.

A final observation is how poor the search criteria are on all the job databases. I probably get about 100 job notices a week from various databases. Of those one is relevant about every other week. What boosts the average to 1 a week is the ALT mailbase. Sifting through them isn’t that time-consuming, it’s just bewildering. I cannot imagine how my criteria apply to some of the notifications I’m receiving, though it’s occasionally good to get the completely off-the-wall ones, I suppose.


A Blank Page

The title is an homage to this blog Which I’m finding a particular source of inspiration and reassurance atm. The author is one of my “sort of god-daughters”. “Sort of” because the nature of the relationship is the same, just without the god bit. I’ve known Helene 22 years (since she was zero) as her mum is one of my closest friends. She started the blog when she realised that she had no idea what was coming next in her life, and found that both intimidating and liberating.

At the end of last month I found out my contract at Brookes isn’t being renewed. I knew the contract was coming to an end, so have applied for a few other jobs (unsuccessfully), but moving  on was always Plan B as I’d hoped to segue the temp job into a permanent one. I’ll have been doing the HE academic role for 20 years this year, and was anticipating finally to be able to get a permanent job by now.

I think the problem is the area that I’ve chosen to specialise in. There’s a process in developing online learning by which you start with the subject matter expert, have them discuss with a learning developer the various ways they can support the learner and make the learning interesting and engaging while online, and then recruit an instructional designer to do the tech bits that are required in putting it together. Three step process – SME -> online learning design specialist –> instructional designer. My plan was that as online learning becomes more widespread, that middle link role will become more needed and I’d be on to a winner. It made sense to me. Someone with the experience of working with lots of other SMEs will be able to bring ideas across disciplines, have an idea of what works and what doesn’t and can easily link to the broader scholarship in the field.

In retrospect, yep that’s one way it could have gone, but the other way, the way it has gone, was just as predictable. In essence, as online learning becomes more widespread, the experience of teaching online has become more common, and so people at both ends of that process have developed enough experience of that middle step of the process to not need someone who specialises in it.

In short, according to people I’ve spoken to, I’m brilliant at what I do, but no-one needs me to do it.

I’ve been at these sorts of crossroads before. I first started out wanting to be a scientist, I studied astrophysics, but found I didn’t really have an aptitude for it. Basically I liked the pictures, but couldn’t do the maths. However, the other thing I liked, writing, in combination with science, lent itself to science journalism.

So I went into science publishing, getting a job with ESA and then British Gas, thinking from that I could get into Nature or New Scientist or something. Not a great move. Turning up at the Nature offices for an interview, with three years’ experience of writing about gas cookers under my belt, was not the most confidence-boosting of encounters. Realising I was at a dead end with that career I opted for retraining. The only grants GLC were handing out at the time were for nursing or teaching, and not being able to handle blood or poo, I went into teaching (which luckily has been free of both of those things).

That worked out for five years. I taught physics and (as I also did an MScEcon at the Cardiff School of Journalism) taught media studies as well. Plus I was then also a trained journalist and had picked up some small bits of work in that field. Teaching got me to Seychelles, which was cool, particularly as while there I met Helene and her mum. The problem was that, by the mid-nineties, the FE sector was changing. Universities were beginning to recognise BTECs and other qualifications for entry. Suddenly you didn’t need to do A levels any more, there were less academically-orientated qualifications that would do just as well. All of the job ads for physics teachers required a background in teaching BTEC. All of the job ads for media teachers required a background in working in the media (and something a bit cooler than writing about thermostats and bains maries for three years and an unpaid job in a magazine and a radio station). Working overseas didn’t help either. In some countries overseas experience is seen as character-building, adventurous, open-minded. In the UK it’s seen as frivolous.

But, while looking for a teaching job and being unemployed for nearly a year, I got an admin job working for a friend of my mum’s for six months at Wolverhampton Uni. The six months became a year, then two, the admin job became a research job, then an elearning research job, and thus a fourth career was born.

However, with each career change, I was either looking for the next one, or looking to continue a current one when another one sneaked up on me.

This time I have absolutely no idea. Which feels particularly rootless. A bit like amnesia in the other direction. Each time I try and grab onto an image of me in the future, of what I’m doing, it sort of swims out of my grasp. I really have no idea.

I’ve got stuff to do. Start going to the gym again, sort out my sciatica, finish writing my novel, do a course in music production (which I’m just starting to get into), I have a backlog of books to read, I have a comics collection to sell on eBay. All of those will keep me busy. None of those will earn me money though (well the comics might fetch a few hundred). I figure I’ve got time in my working life to squeeze one more career in. I just have no idea what it could be though.

Teaching Perspectives Inventory


This is my teaching perspectives inventory from the website

Might be a useful analytical tool, although I do find the fact that it’s calculated a mean and standard deviation on a set of nominal values quite shocking.

I’m not sure if this really indicates my general attitude to teaching, or that I tend to click “disagree” every time I read a question that says “teaching should ..” or “learners should …” I’d never really go along with any statement that is prescriptive about what learning and teaching should be, so always clicked D for disagree on those lines.







Nomic crisis? What nomic crisis?

I had my Prevent training this morning – if anyone isn’t aware of that, it’s having the information anyone in education needs to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation. Slide by slide I felt increasingly reassured by what I was seeing. The first impression I had was that if you had the slightest doubt that someone might be falling prey to some dangerous ideology, then you had to report them. So looking at a few websites or watching a couple of videos was enough to warrant an alert, which would get them investigated. That seemed like dangerous territory to be getting into. By the end I could see it was more about knowing whom to contact if you had a real and genuine concern that something evidently was amiss with someone you knew.

And then we got to the final slide in which a theory of how people were radicalised was presented and the anxiety levels went way up. If this is how the people who are psychologically profiling people who are vulnerable to radicalisation view the world, then we all have a problem.

According to this theory, presented here The first stage of becoming vulnerable to radicalisation is a nomic crisis.

If you haven’t heard of that, and I hadn’t, here’s the line of thought:

  1. “human beings (have an innate need) to feel their lives have a self-transcendent dimension and suprapersonal purpose”
  2. “This dimension or purpose is variously described in terms of religion, culture, totalizing value system, narrative arc, transcendence, sacred canopy” ie a nomos
  3. “Growing up in the absence of a fully-fledged, ‘solid’ nomos – as so many modern individuals do – can make them susceptible to the powerful negative emotions.”
  4. So if someone has a vulnerable nomos, then they will experience “a visceral fear of anything that threatens the coherence, vitality, or self-evidence of the nomos.”

I think that’s what the theory is. Re-reading it now I realise the argument could be that because of the innate need of humans to have a purpose and meaning, that anything that threatens any nomos could lead to violence, because we need them so much. The guy who wrote this is at Brookes, so maybe there could be an opportunity for him to explain.

In fact Terror Management Theory says that it’s any nomos that can lead to a nomic crisis. In fact TMT has bollocks in it too, for example “Self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful.”

If it is, then we are all fucked, because you will never be a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful. Because it isn’t.

However, the most obvious reading is that it’s the absence of a solid nomos, rather than someone having a nomos at all that makes one vulnerable to a nomic crisis. Here’s the problem with the theory as I originally interpreted it (which I’ll assume is the correct one, otherwise this will be a wasted opportunity for a rant).


Our lives are meaningless. The Universe is an unfeeling chaotic set of physical processes that have no regard for us, or our existence. And we all need to learn to deal with that fact.

Sure we have a biological imperative to feel that we matter. It’s a pro-evolutionary characteristic. A tribe of homo erectus who had a shared belief system and unwavering adherence to it was more likely to survive, so more likely to reproduce, than one that didn’t, so we’ve emerged to feel that. That doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, it’s far more likely to be a bad thing. Look at all the other pro-survival evolutionary characteristics – eating, reproducing, harbouring resources.  Our base drives now end up being harmful because they’re about ensuring we survive at the cost of others who don’t share our genes. We have our intelligence to surmount them. In fact if you want a list of our pro-evolutionary characteristics you really need look no further than the 7 deadly sins. Add to that the need for to believe in something as the 8th one.

If a nomic crisis leaves us vulnerable, then the answer isn’t to have a solid nomos, it’s to learn to live without one. It’s to learn to live with the truth, not to come up with a consoling lie. We should be teaching our students that it’s OK to have no meaning, that there really is no point to our existence. And that’s OK. Deal with it.

I got taught that. I got taught that by George RR Martin.  I’d figured out  around the age of 10 (pretty much from first principles) that religion is a bunch of made up stuff. Four years later I was still looking around for something else instead when I came across The Way of Cross and Dragon. This is the paragraph that I took to heart and we need to make everyone aware of.

“The Liars believe in no afterlife, no God. We see the universe as it is, Father Damien, and these naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring.”

If we’re looking to graduateness, if we want the next generation to be fully functioning and productive members of society, then there is nothing we can do for them that is better than ensuring they do not need a coherent and fulfilling worldview. It’s surplus to requirement.

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

You don’t need to be.