Monthly Archives: August 2011

Unraveling the politics of Geek Chic

Adam Corner and I have co-authored a piece for the Times Higher this week on so-called ‘Geek Chic’ and what, if anything, this means for universities.

'home' earrings

I like to pin computer keys into my ears and handknit necklaces.

We wrote it a while back and didn’t think it’d be especially topical. Then A-level results came out last week, along with some figures showing that, for the first time since 2002, physics is back in the top ten most popular A-level subjects. Further, applications for physics degrees were up 17% on last year; astronomy up 40%. Writing on the BBC website, Pallab Ghosh suggested this was an example of not only geek chic, a “Brian Cox effect” even.

(Yeah yeah, geek chic is all very 2006. Dr Corner, the THE, the BBC and I are all way behind the times. Spare me your hipster-isms. I live in Hoxton: I’ve heard them)

If feeling especially cynical, we might note that the “Brian Cox effect” is a story the BBC would be particularly pleased to promote. Although I do think the apparent rise in the popularity of physics is worth noting, we should be careful of taking these stats at face value, and of ascribing singular explanations. Personally, I like the Institute of Physics’ line of we don’t really know: “To be honest with you we don’t really understand that. We’re delighted, but we can’t quite put our finger on why that is” (Tajinder Panesor, quoted by Ghosh).

In particular, that stat on the rise in astronomy applications left me with a lot of questions: how many students are we talking about here, has someone started a new astronomy course recently, has there been an increase in the astronomy content of the school curriculum in the last few years, are there more astronomy clubs in schools, could Galaxy Zoo be credited in some way…? (many of these seem answerable – any readers of this blog help me out?).

Several people have noted that teachers and parents remain key influences on young people’s career and further/higher education choices, for all that celebs might make for a neat story. Others have also mentioned the possible role of the Stimulating Physics network, and it’s maybe also worth noting work aimed at developing school teachers’ professional skills, science museums and visitor centres, and public engagement activities. Over the last twenty five years (especially the last ten) the UK has invested a lot of resources on promoting science to young people; inside of schools and out of them. Cultural change is slow, and often happens through long threads of small, interpersonal projects you wouldn’t see on TV. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes educational change. We should remember that university applications are many years in the making, relying on GCSE grades and A-level choices. Brian Cox’s BBC show was only broadcast in March last year. It may well have ignited some previously laid kindling though, it’d be interesting to know more. Actually talking to teenagers about their attitudes to science and technology isn’t, I think, done enough.

Moreover, looking at the evidence we do have, I think we should remember that there are still some clear challenges. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warned against complacency over the “good news” for science in A-levels, stressing inequalities in gender and school type. From their analysis, it looks like the gender gap in science and maths is widening, not narrowing. Although more are girls taking physics, maths, and chemistry, those increases are, if we look in detail, outstripped by the number of boys taking them. Physics, for instance, saw nearly two thousand more entries this year, but only a tenth of those were girls.

CaSE also note that although independent schools account for just 13.4% of all A-levels taken, they provide for 29% of further maths, 18.1% of maths, 17.9% of chemistry, 19.1% of physics, and 14.8% of biology A-level students. I think this is really important. In putting together the THE piece, one of the things that stuck out for me was a reference to a ‘Geeks vs Chavs’ parties. We used this reference to reflect upon quite what a middle class movement a sense of geek chic might be, and suggest that it is perhaps “less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves”. There is a politics to be unwoven here, ignoring it does no one any favours.

At an event on higher education policy last night I asked what the we could do to stop science becoming a space only for the middle classes? I didn’t really get an answer. That isn’t a criticism of the debate’s panelists; I don’t think there are simple answers here. Still, it is a question we should keep asking ourselves.

The Lorax loves trees and so do we

The lorax loves treesThe Lorax loves trees and so do we.

The Lorax, if you don’t know is a classic piece of ecology literature aimed at kids. It was first published in 1971 and remains in print – one of those culturally sticky kids books which gets passed on through generations. It’s by Dr Seuss, of Cat in the Hat fame. A fantastical animal the “Lorax” speaks up for the trees against the industrial “Once-ler”.

I was reminded of it this morning when I read a piece in the New York Times about economics and children’s books, which contains a passing criticism of the Lorax from a economists’ point of view. Interestingly, there is a pro-wood industry rebuttal to the Lorax called the Truax, which used to be available as an e-book on the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association website, but seems to have disappeared (though you can read a review of it).

The NY Times piece also hints at a slight feeling of anti consumerism in children’s literature, something which (interestingly, I thought) they refer to as offending a (modern US) liberal point of view:

rampant consumers are cast as villains, or at least losers. Take Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” in which Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt are spoiled brats whose parents buy them whatever they want. And even in “Harry Potter,” Ms. Gubar noted, the appalling Dursleys shower their son, Dudley, with presents, a pointed symptom of the family’s wickedness. Such common tropes irk Ms. Gubar, an avowed liberal. “In children’s literature,” she said, “there is often this offensive classism whereby the poor are virtuous and the rich are evil.”

Julia Mickenberg’s book Learning from the Left Children’s Literature is really worth reading on the history here. It is also an issue I explored years back while writing a paper on branding for the Journal of Children’s Literature Studies (pdf). The main point of that paper was to argue that the analysis of children’s literature too often ignore issues of consumer culture. Books are commercial products, as are most items of children’s media culture. I don’t think imagining either literature or children to be somehow above or beyond capitalism is especially useful. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s dangerously naive.

The Lorax actually makes for a good case study here. Aside from the Truax critique, the shot above is over the cover of a 2009 Eco edition. It’s the same story, just made out of recycled paper “because the Lorax loves trees and so do we”.

Or, you know, if you really like trees, you could just get a second hand copy/ borrow it from a library.

Some more notes on the business of “Eco” publishing (cough, greenwash) for kids in this old blogpost. I’d be interested to know what people think about these issues.

William Crookes

Sir William Crookes charity shop

A picture of some shop fronts on the Caledonian Road, a little to the north of Kings Cross station. At the forefront is a slightly grubby blue sign: the Sir William Crookes charity shop. A lot of London charity shops are big brands like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, but there are a few independents like this too. They tend to be based around local charities though, named after a campaign or hospital, not a person. So, when I passed this shop one night on my way home from a party, it stuck out. I also recognised the name. Crookes, Crookes, where I have I heard that before?


Reaches for Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Sir William Crookes (b. 17 June 1832, London – d. 4 April 1919, London), a physical chemist who did fundamental work in the development of atomic physics. The eldest kid of sixteen, his father was a successful tailor with a shop in Regents Street. The DSB says he had irregular schooling, although Hannah Gay (BJHS, 1996) also stresses that for all that his interest in chemistry was self-motivated and unsupervised, he was not without support. At 16, he joined AW Hofmann‘s Royal College of Chemistry, ending up as Hofmann’s personal assistent for a few years in the early 1850s. Hoffman’s focus was organic chemistry, but inspired by Faraday, amongst others, Crookes turned his attention to chemistry’s interaction with physics. In 1854 he was briefly superintendent at Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, and in 1855 moved to teach chemistry at College of Science in Chester.

(At this point I like to imagine him as a teacher in a mid 19th century version of Hollyoaks, but maybe not). 

Crookes moved back to London in 1856 and set up a private laboratory in his home and started an entrepreneurial scientific career the DSB entry described as ‘catholic’. He was an ambitious man, both in business and science, a strong believer that pure science would lead of financial rewards. One might argue he had to be: he had ten kids to support.

His work with vacuums is credited with making possible the discovery of the x-ray and the electron, and was apparently a bit annoyed not to have discovered the x-ray himself. In early March 1861, he found a bright green line in a spectroscopy he was running. He initially thought it was an impurity, but by the end of the month he was confident it was a newly discovered element, and called it Thallium, after the Greek for green shoot. In 1873, he invented what’s known as the Crookes radiometer; an airtight glass bulb, containing a partial vacuum and a set of vanes, mounted on a spindle, which rotate when exposed to light (you’d recognise one if you saw it). He was knighted in 1897, and held presidencies of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. He founded Chemical News and was involved in several other publications. He published somewhere between 250-300 papers during his career, on a wide range of subjects. As the DSB puts it “with aid of his literary adviser, Alice Bird, Crookes acquired a well-deserved reputation as a Victorian sage”.

(Oh, how much do I want to know more about the Bird lady? Also, do check out quite how much of a sage-like beard Crookes had). 

Ok, you’re probably wondering what the hell has this got to do with a charity shop on the Cally Rd? Did he do the Victorian philanthropist thing and found a hospice or library or something? Did he do load of work on radiation, so a cancer charity’s been named after him, like Marie Curie? Nope. Well, he did work on radioactivity in his later years, but that’s not it… The URL on the shop-front sign was down, but using the Wayback Machine I found content in English and Portuguese, connected to a spiritualist church.

Yep, spiritualist church. Spiritualists, in the words of Wikipedia, are not to be confused with spirituality. It is a specific religion which has some roots in Christianity but dates from 1848. Try BBC’s spiritualism at a glance if you want a primer. The very short version is that they believe you can communicate with the dead.

If you are WFT-ing that a chap who was a President of the Royal Society might have been into séances, you wouldn’t be the first. A contemporary of Crookes, WB Carpenter, the man DSB describes as Crookes ‘archenemy’ would talk of two Crookes, one a rational scientist the other a credulous spiritualist. That’s a very narrow view.

(If you are feeling as if you’d like to stop reading for a bit and listen to some soothing music at this point, try this neat little video, from the British Society for the History of Science outreach team)

Crookes was brought up with the Christian view of an afterlife. He also suffered the death of a beloved brother in 1867. More to the point, there was a range of kinetic, audible and luminous phenomena (and ideas) associated with a séance to capture his scientific attention. Let’s also remember that by the middle of the 19th century, the Victorians had seen huge social and scientific change, people like Crookes wanted to be open to extra-ordinary ideas, and in many ways a study of spiritualism offered a physically-based explanation of aspects of the world. It’s also worth stressing that he was deeply sceptical of much of it, and intolerant of obvious hoaxes, taking a meticulous empirical approach, even if (or perhaps because) he also believed that ‘real’ mediums who could talk to the dead existed. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society on the subject which was rejected on grounds it was not exciting enough (Crookes then published in his own Quarterly Journal of Science), and they did later publish negative observations of another medium.

It’s probably worth mentioning that he was President of the Royal Society after all of this (1913-15). Although the DSB entry does dryly conclude with line that this presidency “was marred not only by the outbreak of war but also by a degree of ill feeling from the young generation of fellows that he had sowed the wild oats of genius past his allotted time” and Gay also notes that many of his awards from the scientific community seem to have been given grudgingly, that wasn’t necessarily because of his involvement spiritualism. Studying ghosts wasn’t quite the credibility-krypotonite it might be for a scientist today.

Gay’s paper starts with the observation that it’s often asked why Crookes didn’t do more with his career, but that one could equally ask why did he accomplish so much? She argues that although he didn’t come from a ‘gentlemanly’ background, or an especially scientific one, his family were not without money or connections. Several members of his family had connections in bookselling, which helped him later in publishing work. He also built on early professional networks at the Royal College of Chemistry, which Gay refers to as a fraternal culture, based on communal if competitive laboratory work supplemented by many outdoor and evening activities. Later, although he had a private lab in some respects this was a “a family economy”. His wife helped, as did his mother in law and, when they were old enough, kids. There were also key roles played by a mentor (George Gabriel Stokes) and skilled laboratory assistent (Charles Henry Gimingham).

Gay’s paper concludes with the important point that there is often an ‘underground economy’ in the production of scientific knowledge which we should always be aware of. She means this in terms of the construction of the conventional science and engineering; behind every great man of history there is not only likely the cliched great woman but a load of other support systems and networks it can be easy to miss (or even deliberately obscured in myth-making). A similar point could easily be made to understand the ‘two sides’ of Crookes. There is always a lot more to a scientific career than just the things that get written up in textbooks, and a lot more to the generation and development of scientific ideas than necessarily ends up lasting as ‘scientific’ thought.

I still have no idea what Crookes’ would have made of his name being used for a shop-front charity in North London though (I mean, the dude was from West London…) or precisely what the money raised by that shop funds.

Walking to Brixton

Like many Londoners, I’ve spent a lot of the last week struggling to find meaning in and around the riots. I’ve read the seemingly endless commentaries. I’ve talked to people and ranted at the radio. Mainly though, I’ve done what I’ve always done when I’m sad about something but don’t have any answers: I’ve gone for a walk. Yesterday, pissed off after watching David Starkey on Newsnight, I walked to Brixton.

Bookshop in Brixton

Brixton was a site of some of last weeks’ riots, and lot of it was still boarded up. Thirty years ago, it saw some rather different riots. There were more in 1985. In 1999, it was  of one of a series of nail bombs placed around London. It has a famous street called Electric Avenue (causing an ear worm every time I visit). Vincent van Gogh lived there for a bit. There is a nice cinema, some decent bars, loads of buses, a tube stop, a friendly bike shop, a few clubs, a good market and several housing estates.

Brixton is also where one of great-grandfathers was born. I never met him, but remember being told that he ran off to the Boer War as a boy, lying about his age to join the army. When he came back, he got a job as a bus driver, married a bus conductress and had five kids. That family lived slightly further south, next to West Norwood cemetery. There’s a story that, during the Blitz, him and my great-grandmother came back from an air raid to discover a tombstone at the bottom of their bed. A bomb had sent it flying across the street and in through their front window.

Tate, Bovril

At the heart of Brixton today is a space now called Windrush square. There’s a monument to Henry Tate - of sugar cubes and art galleries fame - who built the library there (and is buried in that cemetery next to where my great-grandparents lived). At the edge of the square is a derelict building where the Black Cultural Archives are currently being build. Just to the south is a road called Effra, named after an ancient buried river. There’s plaque to Sharpville around there too, though it might be off being cleaned at the moment. London is a patchwork of long, intertwined histories.

old london

It is often said that London is a collection of villages, and that the bits of this patchwork don’t always connect that well; that it can be quite tribal. I grew up in North West London (if you’ve read White Teeth, Zadie Smith describes the area very well) and, as a child, Brixton and West Norwood seemed almost as far away as Aberdeen, where the rest of my family are from. I must have been 16 when I seriously started walking the city, I’d leave the house and see where I’d end up. By foot, I’d work out the overground connections to stops in the Tube, discovering whole new bits. I think a lot of Londoners do this. As an adult, I’ve lived North, West, South and, most recently, East. With every new bit, I never feel at home till I’ve really walked it.

People's Friend

Around the same time, one of my school teachers started taking us out for weekly trips in London. An English teacher, she focused on Literary London; not just London in writing, but people like Keats, Shakespeare and Dickens as Londoners. We also visited places like the Royal Courts of Justice and the British Library. We’d walk around the streets and she told us historical stories, showed us secrets others’ didn’t always know about or see. This was important. Even though we were Londoners, the centre of town was reasonably alien to many of us, we didn’t feel we belonged there (now, I have more letters after my name than in it, but still feel like a bit of an impostor at the British Library). Ms Hook helped us lay claim to our city.
the view from Frank'sAt 18, I got a job at the Globe and so was hit a tourists’ view of the city too: a consumption of the city where you purchase a postcard or a pinbadge. Back before the Jubilee Line extension, Tate Modern hadn’t opened yet and area around that bit of Southwark wasn’t as busy as it is now. On my evening breaks, I’d sit by the river with nothing but a passing boat to keep me company, glancing over the north bank, pondering the long history there. I’d walk in to evening shifts via the Monument, moving in the opposite direct to city kids on their way home. If I was running early, I’d take a detour to pass over London Bridge. I’d look east over to the Tower, and imagine Tudor heads on sticks. Sometimes I’d go via Waterloo, and stroll along the South Bank, stopping to watch the skater kids under the Royal Festival Hall.
stripe along riverFor all its various boundaries, bits of London do bleed into each other, and it’s a city with a multitude of international connections. Bits change too. The Kilburn I grew up in is very much Queens Park now. It’s all posh bakeries and boutiques, in sites I remember as boarded up shops. Change isn’t just gentrification though. Just north of those bakeries is a mosque (part of school) that only a few decades ago was a synagogue. It was built to look like a church though, in the hope that if it blended in it’d be less likely to be attacked. Three major religions and centuries of people rubbing often uncomfortably alongside each other encapsulated in a collection of bricks, cement and coloured glass. I could list a whole host of other changes too; short and long term, personal and political, big and small. Places shift.

Stepney Nature Study Museum

One of the things Ms Hook taught me was to look out for street names like Effra Road and the old river it refers too, and try to learn what bit of history it is a remnant or memorial for (mildly not-safe-for-work example). I lived for a while in Nunhead, near Peckham, just off a place called Dr Harold Moody Square.  We wondered who this Moody guy was, and why the Dr was included in the place name, which seemed unusual. We googled him and discovered an amazing life. I was a bit surprised I’d never heard of him before. Growing up in Brent, we’d done a fair bit of black history (or at least more than most UK kids) but maybe Moody was too much of a South Londoner to make it onto the curriculum in NW10. I also learnt about things like the Peckham Experiment and other cool bits of local history while I lived there.
round pond

I can’t explain what happened in London last week. I suspect there will be many explanations. Many, because it is most-likely multi-factorial but also we because finding out will be hard, leading to a range of competing explanations. Right now, I’m feeling my roots as a fourth generation Londoner quite strongly, but I want to stress that I feel these roots as a large set of stories; ones that reflect ongoing, shifting problems as well as ongoing, shifting delights. For all that people might try to impose binaries of class, race or age to comprehend these recent riots, I sincerely doubt it is as simple and them and us. If it is, what the hell would that say about ‘us’?

Note: I haven’t given credits for any of the photos in this post, but they are all by me. They are also deliberately a bit disconnected, taken all around the city at different times. Click on them to see their flickr page with notes on location, etc. 

Laughing at students’ mistakes

I have an opinion piece in today’s Times Higher Education: a complaint about their ‘exam howlers’ competition, an annual compilation of silly things students write in exams.

I do understand a desire to laugh at these mistakes, and to share them with colleagues, but I still think it’s an unreasonable thing to do. If we’re going to ask students to do something as weird as sit an exam, I don’t think we should make fun of them when they inevitably slip up. Sharing these mistakes in public feels especially nasty, but really I don’t think we should do it at all. I do sympathise with the ‘for’ argument published alongside my piece by Times Higher. However, I also believe that if you need to laugh at students in order to get through your working day, you are in the wrong job. I mean that in all seriousness.

For me, the issue is partly personal. I’m dyslexic, and especially prone to these sorts of mistakes (and this is not just a matter of spelling mistakes, what dyslexia is let alone how it manifests itself in an exam is not straightforward, and if lecturers think they know how to filter out dyslexics’ slips so they don’t laugh at the afflicted, they’re kidding themselves).

To quote the longer piece:

Exams are a bit of a weird situation, especially today when most students are used to computers. I still think exams are useful, but we have to expect imperfections. University is a space where students can and should make mistakes. That doesn’t mean we should be lenient; just professional about the slips that inevitably turn up [...] That stupidity you’re laughing at? Well, it was the job of you and your colleagues this year to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly? [...] Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality: they are all funny, at least partly, because of the odd mixed-up view of the world their slips throw out. Still, worrying that I might be laughed at for apparent stupidity has a chilling effect that makes me even clumsier in my articulation. I don’t want that passed on to any student.

I do also have an academic interest in the topic. The role of humour in education is something I’ve thought about a lot, as the jokes used in the Horrible Science series form a chapter of my PhD. I touched on this work in a post for the Guardian Science blog festival last year (see this post); asking people who use comedy in science to think about the ways in which the processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes can be divisive as well as a chance to laugh amongst friends. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t crack jokes, but you should think about their context.

Although I wouldn’t take an ‘anti-humour’ approach, I think it’s important to challenge the idea that anything goes as long as it’s framed as a joke, and consider who exactly we place as the butts of our jokes, and why. Humour is by it’s nature fun, but it can also hurt. It is a political act reflecting a cultural location of the joker and their audience; the background and implication of humour is something we should at least be self-aware of.

If anyone’s interested in reading up on the sociology of humour, I found these useful as a way into studying the topic:

  • Billig, Michael (2005) Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour (London: Sage). This can be an intellectually and even emotionally challenging read as Billig puts forward a deliberate poe-faced ‘anti-humour’ approach. Personally I take it as a challenge to stop and think before you succumb to the social pressure of “but you’ve got to laugh, eh, you got to laugh…”, and found it to be a thought provoking thesis, but I know some people found it a bit too grumpy.
  • Davies, Christie (1998) Jokes and their Relation to Society (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter). Another book with some thought provoking points, especially the section discussing jokes about ‘stupid people’. As Billig has noted (and I agree) Davies is too dismissive of the racism at work here, but I do think there are some interesting bits in this book, especially in terms of jokes in around education and science.
  • Kuipers, Giselind (2006) Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Berlin & New York, Mouton de Gruyter). More empirically based than the last two suggestions and, in my view, catches the right tone of critical but understanding of the social role of jokes. Perhaps slightly less intellectually provocative than Billig, but probably more intellectually sustaining.
  • Mulkay, Michael (1988) On Humour: its Nature and its Place in Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity). In many ways, this is a lovely book even if for my personal taste it isn’t quite as critical as it could be. It has an especially useful focus on the positive role surreal humour may play in finding new ways of thinking about the world. Read it in conjunction with Billig and make up your own mind about humour’s various powers for social good and bad.
  • Palmer, Jerry (1994) Taking Humour Seriously (London: Routledge). A really neat overview of humour studies. Analytical and thorough. Again, it’s not as provocative as Billig’s thesis, but serves as a great introduction to the subject.

You Are Not a Gadget

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier.

An arrow key on my laptop broke last week, and I had to send it away for a few days to be fixed. One of the unexpected consequences of being without it was that I kept finding myself itching for a book to read. Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget came highly recommended by several friends and colleagues, and it’s manifesto-like call for a future where individuals mean more than machines seemed like a good choice to fill the gap left by constant, easy access to the files and software on my computer.

I didn’t share my friends enthusiasm. It’s not a bad book. It’s thoughtful, wise even. It is also very well written, with a wry humour and succinct style. Lanier manages to be provocative in an outspoken whilst also humble way; as if he just wants you to think about an issue, rather than necessary agreeing with him. The book’s central thesis – being critical about technology is not simply a destructive act but can be utilised in a hopeful way, to construct a better future – is one I agree with. I also agree that technological change can be stressful, and that decontextualised information, on it’s own, is pretty inert. Plus, I think that it’s worth questioning, as Lanier does very neatly, the way crowdsourcing and the idea of a ‘hivemind’ may collectivise thinking in negative as well as positive ways, and the problems of a free-at-the-point-of-click economy (including social inequalities such economics might entrench/ create).

I just did’t get much more intellectually from reading Lanier than I did from The Social Shaping of Technology (1985 and 1999) and Life on the Screen (1995). I admit I read around those books, synthesised ideas and disagreed with some too. I also appreciate they aren’t the most mainstream of titles, whereas Lanier’s book a popular work aiming at a broad audience. As I thought about Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals, it’s all very well yawning and saying ‘some of us knew this years ago’, but that’s of little good if no one outside my little bit of the Ivory Tower noticed. Still, I do also suspect I might also have got a lot of what Lanier says from the a fair bit of science fiction too, perhaps supplemented with a re-reading of Animal Farm and David Quantick’s old 1980s prediction that pop will eat itself.

Something I did think was important was the book’s reference to political ideologies embedded in digital culture, although I’d have liked to see this discussion extended. Under the heading ‘everything sounds fresh when it goes digital – maybe even socialism’ Lanier notes a fair amount of ‘stealth socialism’ in digital circles’ (p104). He says he isn’t necessarily opposed to this, but ‘if socialism is where we are headed, we need to be talking about it’ (p103). I totally agree, though I’m unsure Lanier is talking about socialism. Or if it is socialism, I’ve missed some big discussion on economic inequality. What, to my reading, Lanier seemed most worried by was the difference between doing things on one’s own and doing so collectively. This may well connect to aspects of socialist thought, but is maybe better considered in terms of the longer history of modernity, bringing in a critque of capitalist uses of mass action too. Generally, I was surprised by the book’s lack of explicit discussion of modernity (including its late, post and liquid variants) as it seemed to relevent to so many of Lanier’s arguements.

Personally, I thought the book’s inclination to distrust a hivemind seemed to my reading to be rooted in an ideological commitment to individualism over the collective which needed as much unpacking as any notion of ‘stealth socialism’. Further, I’m not sure it is all that hidden under an apparent cloak of Silicon Valley liberalism, as Lanier suggests. Or at least we need to unpack the various liberalisms associated with online cultures a bit. I also think we need to talk about the scientific history of much of today’s digital culture. The web was born at CERN, and in many ways builds on what Merton called the communalism of science. It’s simplistic to draw a direct comparison between communalism and communism, but there are both quite real historical and key philosophical connections between the aspects of socialism and aspects of scientific culture which we do need to keep in mind. Especially important to Lanier’s argument, I thought, is post-war science’s commitment to the sense that the work of many can achieve more than that of individuals (the latter half of this interview with Tim Berners-Lee provides some nice context). The collective work of ‘Big Science‘ can just as easy be made to read as post-war science’s connection to capitalism, I should add. It’s all quite slippery, which is precisely why we need to talk about this more (and modernity should have been mentioned more).

The thing that frustrated me most about this book, however, was Lanier’s continual need to tell us that he is optimistic about technology really, that he isn’t a simple pessimist; as if the obvious default setting is either pro or anti innovation as some coherent whole (which ‘innovation’ really isn’t, no more than ‘science’ or ‘stuff people do’). In many respects, Lanier has produced a call to think beyond the binaries and I appreciate it’s not his framing; rather one he works within. Still, I wish he’d simply ignore it. Because ‘what do you do when the techies are crazier than the Luddites?’ (subheading, p28). Well, you stop simplifying the world into Luddites and techies for a start, and take time to spot the more complex and often overlapping networks of debates instead.

So, for me, the scariest thing about the prevalence of machines in contemporary life is not the idea of people might think of themselves gadgets, or that I find it hard to cope without my laptop for a few days. It is that even expressly bold, creative and independent thinkers such as Lanier may be hesitant on their critique technology, and still so keen to frame ideas as nightmares set against hopeful daydreams. I’m not a gadget, neither do I want to be, even if I enjoy using them. To quote another manifesto on the topic, one several decades older than Lanier’s: I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess (a critical user of technology). I think a lot of us feel that way, whatever words we happen to use to say it.

Working in science communication

Part of my job over the last year has involved giving careers advice to people thinking about working full-time in science communication.

Every case is an individual, but there are some tips I have found myself repeating, so I thought I’d list them here. I also hoped other people might chip in to the comments with anything I’m missing.

So, you want to work in science communication?

  • Are you sure?
  • Really?
  • You’re not under the impression it’s an easy alternative to a research job, without leaving your comfort zone of science? Good, because it isn’t.
  • You want to write? Get a blog.
  • You want to run events? Set one up then.
  • Maybe audio or film is more your thing? You probably have access to basic film or at least audio equipment through your desktop computer, if not your phone. Have a play. Make something.
  • Find others like you to do these things with, or at very least act as an editor and give feedback on your work (and let you edit them – you’ll learn loads from this experience).
  • Student? Join in student media.
  • Researcher? Run a project with your group.
  • Seriously, you’ll learn by doing. Do. Make something.
  • Don’t just produce though, you will also need to become an avid and critical consumer of the sorts of science communication you want to work in. Listen. Read. Watch. Have a look around the NCCPE site. How else can you tell you’re going to contribute something original if you don’t know what’s already occupying the field?
  • Learn the jargon. Make sure you learn what these terms mean and why they are used (i.e. don’t just learn them off to decorate your vocabulary). The amount of jargon in the field can be really annoying, but it will help unlock ideas as well as professional networks.
  • Appreciate the history of work in science communication, including the history of thinking about the issues surrounding it (this post might help, and this reading list). Just because you see problems as yet unsolved, doesn’t mean people haven’t been trying for decades. Their failure to fix things isn’t necessarily because these people are rubbish, it’s hard work that takes a long time. It’s also often that they’ve decided that the real problems aren’t the obvious ones, so have been dealing with other things instead
  • If you’ve worked in science for a while, this may well be useful, but you will need to learn to think outside the little community of your old research field. You will have to starting thinking not only about a range of different areas of science, but a range of different perspectives on it, some of which may well be critical of some areas of science.
  • Read Ed Yong’s collection of ‘origin stories’ for science writers.
  • Brits: have a look through Jo Brodie’s Science Communication jobs site – it’ll give you an idea of the sorts of jobs available in the field and what they are looking for, even if you’re not quite on the job market yourself yet.
  • Look around for small courses run by your university/ funder. These vary a lot, but can be excellent. At the very least, they provide some time to reflect on science communication issues and you should meet other people who are interested in the area, who you can learn from.
  • If you are a UK researcher, you should think about applying for the British Science Association Media Fellowship. If you aren’t a UK researcher, look around for other similar opportunities.
  • Think about one of the MSc courses in the field (for example). You really don’t need one to work in the field (I don’t have one), but it helps. A good one will provide a network of contacts in the field, some chance to reflect on what science communication is and means to society, and where in this world you feel most at home. It will also challenge you to push your thinking and technical skills further than most people can on their own.
  • Join professional groups like the ABSW or STEMPRA and try to attend local meetups (look out for science tweetups in your area, they tend to be full of science communication people).
  • Ask yourself: Are you sure?
  • Really? Ok. Good luck!