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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
The contradiction at the heart of higher education: prepare for disappointment

The contradiction at the heart of higher education: prepare for disappointment

A happy crowd
Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

We want to be useful to society.

But any attempt to show that or to have it guide us either destroys what we are, or turns us into technical servants or mouthpieces of other peoples’ ends.

If you want to see how that turns out, enjoy listening to Christian Rock. The culture of curiosity and the creativity needed to make it happen has to be independent of the utility, otherwise you create a dangerous feedback loop. It is similar to how AI works well because it is not based on AI. For now.

Or maybe what I have said is smug nonsense. Some great works were created with a purpose in mind such as Marx’s Capital or any artwork produced for the Borgias. In response I say these works all went beyond that limited praise function in some way which is why we remember them. Capitalists can get a lot from reading Capital. You do not have to be a fan of Rodrigo de Borja to like Pinturicchio. The fierce need to make sense of the world that drove Marx and Weber shines beyond the politics of their time and place.

Example: nudge theory is an implementation of behavioural economics that was fashionable in the 2010s and whose influence continues in the form of various behavioural politics that in the UK substitute for innovation. It is why in Scotland we cannot get 2 for 1 offers on alcohol. Nudge was tailor made for impact. Cheap, with an easy to grasp logic and easy to implement, nudge proposes that small changes to the choice architecture – the order choices are presented in, the wording of a question – can have socially beneficial outcomes. A common implementation is changing opt-in solutions to opt-out ones to increase involvement. It matches the design of everyday life to the limitations and naturalised inclinations of the brain revealed by neuroscience and behavioural economics.

Problem? It is either trivial, or it does not work in the terms it claims. For example a case usually quoted is shifting organ donation consent from opt-in to opt-out. The claims made for that skate over problems that we can expect. It is not a morally neutral choice, despite its claims. It only works with a lot of other work going on to support it, so it is not cost free. People adapt to the new environment. It is not a bad thing to remind everybody that solving problems takes work.

The approach also blunts our critical edge. Something sociologists have done is to highlight the irrationalities of apparently rational behaviour and especially of bureaucracies. Behavioural economics attributes irrationality and limited rationality to humans. Humans are construed as being the one kind of actor who is capable of acting against their own interests. However bureaucracies are quite capable of generating, and failing to recognise, massive irrationalities, counterproductive and damaging outcomes – and individuals’ apparently irrational behaviour might be grounded in perfectly comprehensible responses to bureaucratic irrationality.

The excitement of discover means you must prepare for disappointment. That wonderful hypothesis did not work out. But that is okay. Disappointment should be a creative moment, acting like a psychedelic does on the brain, forging new connections. The narrow sense of impact means distressing the data until the convenient answer is given.


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