Epiphanies – thanks to Shoshana Zuboff


12 Drummers drumming with lego figures
12 Drummers drumming by Jonathan CC BY NC ND

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, which makes me think of twelve drummers drumming and the Christian Feast of the Epiphany that traditionally celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men from afar. And by the by, it’s also #NollaigNamBan #WomensChristmas in Ireland.

noun, plural e·piph·a·nies.

( initial capital letter ) a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi; Twelfth-day.

an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.

a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.


I am not expecting any appearances by a deity today but epiphany also makes me think of the third meaning, the dawning of an idea, in my case often from a combination of reading and reflection on practice.

Epiphany from 1998

During 2018, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about the work of Shoshana Zuboff. I first came across her book “In the Age of the Smart Machine”, 20 years ago in 1998. It was written in 1988, and based on research that she started in 1978. Reading the book in 1998 was an epiphany for me, and I drew on it in my teaching and thinking about digital technologies. Zuboff’s first gift to me was that technology informates as well as automates: that information technology’s additional dimension of reflexivity (at least partially) reveals events, objects and processes by the information it captures. Zuboff captures the duality of automation and informating:

Informating derives from and builds upon automation. Automation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for informating. It is quite possible to proceed with automation without reference to how it will contribute to the technology’s informating potential. When this occurs, informating is experienced as an unintended consequence of automation. (Zuboff 1988, p11).

The concept of informating served me well in helping students learn about the contextual nature of information technology, usually in the workplace settings that formed the context for Zuboff’s research. Informating was not ethically neutral: it could enable surveillance of workers’ performance, or reveal criminal activity, as in the Harold Shipman case where his tampering with records was revealed. Zuboff also introduced me to the Panopticon and the potential of information technology to enable surveillance. Over the twenty years since I first read Zuboff’s book, information technology has escaped from the workplace, thanks to the Internet. It’s not just our workplace activities that are subject to informating but all of the social, learning, sharing, searching, communicating, gaming and other activities that now have a digital presence.

Epiphany in 2018

Though I had thought about Zuboff’s work often over the years, I revisited it during 2018 in the wake of revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. I have been concerned about the use of data by social media platforms for many years, even doing some independent research with co-authors , but the scale of the data capture and sharing without informed consent was shocking. Both informating and Zuboff(2015)’s more recent work on Surveillance Capitalism have spoken to me in this year.

Today’s Epiphany

Today, I read about epistemic injustice in 2 different places: an article by @taskeeners; and this blog post by @bali_maha.  Shortly afterwards, I read Zuboff’s Notes on Field-Research Methodology (Zuboff 1988,p 423)

Notes on Field Research Methodology - Frances Bell
Notes on Field Research Methodology – Frances Bell

My little epiphany was that we do need qualitative research based on an explicit epistemology, but more than that, various epistemologies need to be heard and that this may mean a range of research studies to accommodate the range of epistemologies. And for me, that means we need more than just informated data.


Zuboff, S. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine. New York: Basic Books.

Zuboff, S. (2015) ‘Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization’, Journal of Information Technology. Nature Publishing Group, 30(30), p. 75. doi: 10.1057/jit.2015.5.

Missed Conversations – in more ways than one #OER17

This evening I participated in a Missed Conversation via VConnecting session that followed up on a #TowardsOpenness workshop at #OER17.  It’s lovely that OER17 continues to ripple on nearly a week after it finished.

This was a missed conversation for me in more ways than one. Although I attended OER17 in person, I had missed the original workshop as I was part of a panel running in parallel. And then I missed the first 12 minutes of the Google Hangout as I had connection problems but I am so glad I got there eventually as it was a lovely session.  It was great to hear what participants had to say but I also loved the chat stream that was a missed conversation for people watching the video. I have just watched the video  and I am missing the first 12 minutes of the chat stream from there 🙂

When I eventually joined the Google Hangout, and was invited to introduce myself,  I explained that I am an Itinerant Scholar, having retired from Higher Education in 2013.

Here’s what I said as my introduction:

In preparation for this event, I read the abstract, blog posts and viewed the video provocations. I reflected on the process model

Towards Openness Framework
Towards Openness Framework

especially “Create and share a realistic or fantasy intervention/ prototype/ tool / process”.

My personal motivation, based on me tending to talk too much, was to participate differently in inclusive conversation. As well as changing my actions, I am imagining a counter to algorithmic shaping of conversation online.

First I thought of a human algorithm (or even humane algorithm). I like the human bit but think we can do better than fixedness of algorithm.

So this was my attempt to re-create the workshop activity and I came up with some heuristics, rules of thumb that I see as a concept, a broad guide, a space of adaptation and action.

I had started to think about these heuristics when participating in #tjc15 organised by the lovely Laura Gogia. The hashtag twitter conversation was busy and fast flowing so I tried to think of what I could do to have a meaningful participation.

In the Missing Conversations hangout, I concentrated on listening to the speakers and participating in the chat, both of which channels were very interesting, though those viewing the video, live or as a recording, couldn’t see the chat. Privacy, surveillance and sacrifice of personal data in return for ‘free access’ were all explored, and it’s worth watching the video, if you missed the session.

I find it difficult to separate the spoken contributions from the chat room, and in a way that is an example of the differential experiences that platforms such as Google Hangout can engender. Kate Green explained beautifully at 25.30 into the Hangout that she had to change her browser and cookie permissions so that participating in the workshop compromised her privacy strategies. This chimed with Chris Gilliard’s contributions (video and spoken) regarding the implications of surveillance capitalism.

Towards the end of the Hangout, I shared my heuristics for participating in a one hour synchronous conversation online, which are:

I will:

  1. LISTEN – I minimise my speaking, and maximise my listening.
  2. PREPARE – I research in advance and note THREE points that I might make/respond to.
  3. WAIT – I make ONE of these points as a statement, being prepared to bring in the others in response, if relevant, within the flow of the conversation.
  4. REFLECT – I reflect and report back via a blog post/ Twitter comments.

I don’t really think that these heuristics are sufficient to counter algorithmic and functional shaping of conversational streams in social media but they are my human shaping. Of course, we can also resist in other ways.

This was a great experience – thank you all.

The Paradise (hopefully not lost) of #OER17

Last week I was lucky enough to attend OER17 an Open Education conference, The Politics of Open. When I heard at the close of OER16 that was the theme and that Josie Fraser and Alek Tarkowski were the Chairs, I was thrilled. I did wonder if that ‘politics’ aspect might be be off-putting for some. But the submissions that I  reviewed engaged with the topic and were generally of high quality. I felt reassured and optimistic.

And it was a lovely conference (organised by the very lovely ALT) with so much friendliness and spirit and voices from beyond UK where it happened. I guessed it was going to be great from my experience on the planning committee and reviewing abstracts, but it really did exceed my expectations. And for that, I should start by thanking the Conference Chairs who came up with the inspiring Conference themes. The whole experience was invigorating, and I am still enjoying the space after the conference. There was so much going on at the conference, and is still happening, please check out hashtag #OER17 as delegates and hashtag attenders continue to share and engage. I have been able to get a flavour of sessions that I couldn’t attend because I was in another good session.

I blogged the wonderful keynotes, which were inspirational in different ways, and I had blogged in preparation for the conference check my tag.  Feeling slightly dazed, I am reflecting and trying to fulfill my desire to contribute to OER17.

So let me think beyond the web links to the experience. This was a lovely conference from start to finish. The conference themes were inspirational: the keynotes were invigorating, they opened up thinking and generated some lovely abstracts and many beautiful presentations, lightning talks, workshops. The corridor/tea break  encounters, the discussion within sessions, the social media exchange, the bowling and Karaoke on Wednesday night all contributed to my good experience of #OER17.

But a bigger question is how can this conference make a difference in a broader sense?

I can’t capture the difference it will make in terms of an organised movement but I suspect that it will make a difference, however small, to how people think and what they do. I saw a few glimpses of criticality being seen as powerful for change rather than as a negative approach. That gladdened my heart but what of all the things I didn’t see? I am scouring #OER17 tag and seeing more but there will be far more that eludes me and that’s OK.

I will share two experiences that I had and that are part of the difference OER17 made to me.

The first was that I plucked up my courage and sang (very badly) at the Karaoke on Wednesday. I chose Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, and hadn’t realised till then that it’s an anthem for Open.

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

The second was seeing Chris Gilliard’s provocation for, I think, 2 OER17 sessions. I love the thought that digital creations can flit across to face to face sessions and flit back to channels like Twitter and blogs. I love the way Chris performs his own and Shoshana Zuboff’s ideas in this video.

These are ideas that are already familiar to me, and that have informed my own work but Chris’s video triggers new thoughts. That’s part of the beauty of open in a digital age that we can engage with ideas through and about the means by which we share.