A talk I gave recently on ‘small data’ (or personal data) and the importance to curate and keep it for personal history.
I spend the past week doing the Menindee Lakes and Darling River run in the New South Wales Outback. It was my first serious Outback sojourn on the moto, but it wasn’t that serious, there are many other significant tracks to explore in Australia, but that would take another whole level of preparation, including expensive mods on the moto (and proper Outback tyres!)
The good thing about exploring NSW Outback currently is that it is relatively cool, there is lots of water about, and the Menindee Lakes are full, as are the rivers and wetlands. This is because of La Nina, the ‘big rain’ that comes after long dry periods. And with the big rain, come the birds and the wildlife and Outback becomes almost hospitable.
I stayed in Menindee for one night, camped on a beach next to one of the magnificent lakes. The best thing about Outback towns is the proud, worldly pub, such an important institution, and this is where I learned about the best roads to take and the best towns to visit.
I decided to do the Darling River Run, a 1000 KMS Outback road that follows the Darling River to Bourke and beyond. Outback roads have a volatile personality and can change at any time, lurching from calm to belligerent, from serene to egocentric. The road itself is an A-B type of road, and there is also no intersection with the river, only at the towns, which I found disappointing. Still, at ‘towns’ like Tilpa (one of the most isolated places I have ever been), there is a friendly Outback pub and plenty of places to camp on the river, as there are in other towns like Louth and Wilkania.
I think the thing I liked best about this trip was ‘nothing’, the vast panes of nothingness and solitude, which is unique in an epoch when it is difficult to be alone.
During April, I went on a journey that was not long in time nor distance but was monumental on the adventure scale. Some of the best journeys that I have done have been short and shattering; it is a rare feeling, fleeting, reflective, a synthesis of rival life narratives.
Broken Hill is not that far from Melbourne in terms of distance, about 1000 kms as the cockatoo flies. However, in terms of head-space distance, you might as well be riding the fucking moon! On the first day of my adventure, I felt chock-full of ennui, so I pushed my trip back a day, which wasn’t a good idea because I was compelled to ride to Broken Hill in one day.
The ride there was hellish; I was so damn tired. I stopped to nap at half a dozen towns, sprawled out in the local park in leathers trying to get a 20-minute power nap between the uptight rose gardens. At Mildura, on the Murry River, the last stop of Victorian civilisation, I filled up with petrol and coffee and crossed the state border.
After Mildura, you enter the outback and the 300 kms road to Broken Hill. Before the trip, I talked to my friend Stuart, and he advised me to ride fast (apart from the other things he recommended, this is all I remembered). The outback is like an Australian autobahn (fun fun) with Kangaroos, meaning (in theory) that you can ride as fast as you want. As it was getting dark and Broken Hill was still more than a three-hour ride away, I thought this was sound advice.
I opened the throttle and rode on the magnificent stead on my sovereign road into the dusk. After about an hour and a half, anxious of the outback at night and concerned its great void may form a friendship with my own, I plucked my eyes off the horizon and glanced down as the fuel gauge in existential horror. It was almost empty WTF!
I had forgotten (or perhaps had never known) that bikes have crap fuel economy at high speed. The fuel was nearly drunk, and there was still more than 150 Kms to Broken Hill. I thought about all those shit British backpackers that run out of petrol in the outback and decide to walk to the next town, 200 kms away, in the summer heat and get burned up about half an hour later. I did not want to spend the night sleeping in the void, cooked like a Wolf Creek backpacker in the morning.
I slowed right down, like seriously slow; I did not know I could ride so slow. Then it started to get cold, Tasmania cold, and the outback put on a vast and eternal extraterrestrial display that, for a moment, distracted me from my temporal predicament. I rode like this for an hour, then another hour, then another with the nagging fuel gauge threatening only a few kilometres more of modern life.
I arrived at Broken Hill at 1130PM, at the Palace Hotel, where Priscilla Queen of the Desert had cut a path into the jungle a generation ago. I spent a few days in Broken Hill, having a bit of a look around this wonderful outback city, micro-dosing its many delights.
Hackneyed, I know, but like all great adventures, regardless of their scope or cost, it is the journey that counts.
I often get asked what is the best part of Tasmania to visit, especially when riding a moto. The answer is that it is all good, and you cannot go wrong. I grew up in Tasmania and spent the first 18 years of my life on the northwest coast, and I have been there too many times to count. But it always seems fresh, and I find a new place and a new angle to see this wonderful island each time I go.
This time, I took my adventure bike, started on the northwest coast, and headed south via the west coast. This is the first time I have taken a decent bike to the island, and it made all the difference on the relentless roads. It was in the middle of summer, but it was still icy, about 5 degrees, so I needed layer upon layer of clothing. Plus, it rained. It always rains on the west coast, part of its lush, misty appeal (and keeps the hedonists at bay).
Queenstown is a small mining town with a fearsome reputation. The hills around Queenstown were once denuded due to the pollution from mining, but as mining has receded, the trees have returned. It has some pretty impressive pubs on the main street that have seen better days.
From Queenstown to the south is a crazy road. It goes on and on through a lush rain forest with zero human habitation. There was also no cars and no tourists, so the riding was super fun. I stopped at the Frenchman’s Cap hike trailhead and walked about 1 Kilometre to the world-famous Franklin River. The fight to protect this river spurred the Australian conservation movement and sent (brown) ripples worldwide. Once, it was about saving a muddy old river in Tasmania; now, it is about halting the mindless excess of industrial modernity.
I avoided Hobart as it is overrated and full of blow-ins and went to Cockle Creek on the far southern tip of Tasmania instead.
Cockle Creek is a special place. It has numerous bays and beaches and is nestled on the edge of the southwest wilderness world heritage area. I walked the southwest track for a couple of hours and made it to the furthest tip of Tasmania.
I went to Bruny Island from Cockle Creek and stayed there the night. I got a fantastic ploughmans lunch at the local cheese factory along with some beers and oysters and ate them on a deserted beach. There are many things to like about Australia, and indeed, beer on your own deserted beach is one of them.
A fantastic trip and I hope to do it again and again. Tasmania is small and compact, but the riding effort between places is pretty tiresome, given the crazy mountain roads. This is especially the case on the west coast, best to take your time.
After a tumultuous time in higher education over the past months, particularly in the EdTech and online learning spaces, it may be time to reflect, re-energise, and critically appraise. The past is full of junctures and upheavals, turning points and divergent paths, and it is the historian’s job to make sense of significant events and attempt to bring them together into a coherent whole. There are several competing narratives around higher education now, each competing for their historical moment. I will offer a high-level outline of two key themes that I have distilled from the numerous online conferences and forums that I have attended over recent weeks. This is meant as a general observation to provoke reflection and imagination, rather than a deep dive into nuanced areas of debate.
The future will be online
During the Cold War, the Internet was designed as a post-apocalyptic command grid. In the event of a nuclear attack, that destroyed the communication systems of the Capitalist West, the survivors could send messages to each other to launch missiles to destroy the Communist East. The logic of the Internet, to survive an apocalypse, was not a rosy picture of the future (and computing’s role in it), but a historically embedded response to the reality of the day, and this reality was not pretty.
Todays’ reality is perhaps not that far removed from the original idea of the Internet; to survive an apocalypse. Most countries of the world are in some sort of COVID-response lockdown with mass-education systems now operating entirely online. This reality was unimaginable only a few years ago and indeed would not have been possible without the hard work of the innovators in online learning.
It is thus perhaps not surprising that many employed in the online learning space, that have done all the heavy-lifting to keep the lights on in higher education in recent months, see the future of education as online. In recent weeks, this optimistic affirmation has come up again and again, by senior university administrators, to EdTech entrepreneurs: it is taking todays’ historical moment and projecting it into the indeterminate future (and if the 1960s future-vision was correct, then we would all be glowing in the dark by now).
The future of online may be quite different to what it has been in the past as it may not be a simple matter of scaling-up the hard work and innovation that has already been done (indulge my speculation here). The online education space is predominantly focussed upon courses that deliver skills and knowledge acquisition, primarily for younger students that require flexibility, or for older professionals already in good jobs wishing to reskill or change professions. This is a reasonably defined area of education and something that online does incredibly well (and some universities do better than others).
But I am not sure if this can be scaled to all or even most of higher education without confronting thorny issues of ‘academic scale’. What I mean by this is that constructivism, for instance, that has become prevalent over the past twenty years or so in online learning design may be inadequate to scale to other or all higher-education publics. For instance, the constructivist ideal of student-centred learning has been around for an awfully long time, close to 100 years if aligned with John Deweys early, ground-breaking work. But constructivism supports a particular type of industrial society and even a particular type of social realism typical in the early 20th Century US and Britain. Sure, it has been adapted and refined to the needs of contemporary education both on and offline. Still, perhaps it is time to give something else a crack as the student may have moved to some other centre. (I am thinking something much more minimalist, less prescriptive to provoke creativity, combined with real-world experimentalism in group contexts, something like the Minerva Schools at KGI ). I will leave this idea open, as I have not entirely thought it through. Still, my point is that if online education is to scale from its strong constructivist roots, learning design must appreciate that higher-education is embedded in other at times divergent cultural contexts with different educational needs and long epistemologically rooted world-views (i.e. the creative industries, humanities and social sciences, and pure science).
Lifelong learning will be the norm
Another fundamental affirmation reinforced over recent months in several forums is that lifelong learning is the new norm. Lifelong learning is something that is facilitated incredibly-well online; this is, provide flexible micro-credentials, short-courses, and re-skilling-degrees for students at different stages of their life. Services such as LinkedIn Learn, Coursera, Futurelearn, edX and Practera are invaluable to a professional workforce wishing to remain current, or simply learn something new (that may send students in some fruitful lateral journeys).
The provision of lifelong learning products and services has indeed blossomed, evident in the recent Melbourne EdTech Summit (September 2020). There is a plethora of terrific work being done in experiential learning (Practera), assessments (Cadmus), Open learning and training platforms (Open Learning), and (G01). There is also a lot of innovative thinking about packaging and credentialing lifelong learning so that it is relevant to individuals at different life stages and work contexts. However, the lifelong learning conversation again lacks clarity when it is considered at scale. There is already an assumption in some degrees (i.e., the humanities) that learning is already forever once you learn-how-to-learn (except how to code; this is hard).
That aside, there is stacks of lifelong learning happening right now; people re-skilling due to mass-unemployment, people stuck at home looking for things to do, unable to go to the local pub with their mates. There are terrific courses out there, literally thousands of them on dozens of platforms and heaps of topics. But still, the micro-credential scene seems a little Kevin from HR in that they generally emanate from a particular historical context that may not scale well to all aspiring life-long learners (sorry Kevin).
Right now, there are lots of unemployed creative people in Melbourne, and creativity is at the heart of all innovation and is equally the lifeblood of Melbournes much-prized liveability. Perhaps micro-credentials on dancing at work, guitar playing, digital ethics, historical storytelling, drumming, and psychogeography (or something like this). The humanities and social sciences have an enormous role to play in online education because there is not only a skills deficit in some areas of Australian industry there is also a gaping˜meaning deficit (these are existential times). With a bit of creativity, we could bridge that divide as humanities skills are timeless, knowledge-based, employability skills that are even more powerful when combined the hard-and-fast skills needed to solve the problems of an advanced knowledge economy. (And Northeastern University in the US is doing some great work in terms of combining humanities and social sciences majors with other degrees, and in experiential learning in arts and industry-based settings, with the help of the Australian-based company Practera).
Optimism is an impoverished means to navigate the ambiguity of an uncertain future, and indeed it was not a culture of optimism in which the Internet was developed during the Cold War. It was a realistic and pragmatic response to the significant external threat of the moment (before higher education took the Internet in another direction). There are enormous challenges ahead for higher education requiring great captains at the helm. Still, I doubt that online education is the central longer-term solution to many of the problems unless reimagined to encompass more educated publics. There are many creative solutions now, micro-credentials, single post-graduate subjects, mixing of programs from different providers, flexible course starting times (not sure how this works), and terrific non-credentialised courses (thanks to General Assembly). But still, something is lacking in this uncertain landscape, and this is the awareness that there are going to be less people employed, fewer students, less budget to pay for EdTech, and uncertain policy and political landscapes. Creativity is no stranger to adversity, and when we emerge from behind our screens, there is an enormous opportunity to respond in an informed, critical and realistic way and meet the needs of our times. As long as there is creativity in the word, the online project will never be completed.
One of the most productive things I have done during Melbourne’s lockdown is read Thomas Piketty’s latest work, Capital and Ideology (Harvard University Press, 2020). It is undoubtedly not the most leisurely book to read, at 1150 pages, dense with footnotes, appendices, and graphs, spanning a three-hundred-year period, multiple countries, and the fields of economics and history. It is a monumental work of scholarship. Along with his last significant work, capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014), it provides a rigorously empirical, data-centric and troubling view of the undoing of financial egalitarianism in Western democracies. Piketty provides the historical reasoning of this, the monumental failure of the command economies of communism, the weakening of progressive taxations and other policies designed to redistribute wealth (such as inheritance taxes) and the shift in the ideology of egalitarianism to ideologies based on the uncritical embrace of meritocracy.
The primary cause of the significant shift is that the political left (Labour and Democrats) shifted from workers parties to parties of the educated (or what Piketty calls the Brahmin left). A more educated demographic is more likely to vote left; the less educated are more likely to vote right. Politics has become less of a class battle and more of a battle between elites, the ‘Brahmin left’ and the ‘Mercantile right’, with a bunch of Identitarian political cleavages to keep things interesting.
I will attempt to outline the four key arguments.
Inequality has always been justified by ideology, from pre-modern trifunctional societies (church, nobles, and warriors), to slavery, colonialism, communism to what Piketty terms ‘hyper-capitalism. All regimes had an ideology to justify financial inequality from the slave states of the Caribbean and southern United States (that drew up to 100% of their income from the slave trade), to Belle epoque France, to 21st Century hyper-capitalist states. Piketty has a knack for measuring the transition of inequality through various historical epochs using vast data sets of national income, taxation, and inheritance records. During the late Belle epoque (the period after the French Revolution), a ridiculously small elite owned nearly all the property in Paris, justified by the post-revolutionary-meritocracy of mercantile egalitarian exceptionalism. It was only through the advent of progressive taxation and inheritance taxes in the 20th Century that France and other countries moved to a more quantifiable egalitarianism.
Piketty claims that communism was a disaster so great that its failure overshadows the regimes of colonialism and slavery that came before it (and this argument has infuriated the Chinese CCP so much that they have banned his book in China). The failure to regulate capital through the experimental, centralised command economies of communism has pushed western countries in another ideological and policy direction to have very-little wealth in public hands. All that citizens now own through their governments (schools, roads, buildings, and agencies) is worth zero dollars once government debt is considered. Indeed, in some countries, governments must pay private enterprise interest as governments own less than they owe (and this has happened in the short timeframe of 10 years).
Social democratic policies are another area of focus of Piketty’s examination. Although they have not disappeared altogether (Norway, Sweden, Germany, and to a lesser degree, New Zealand and Australia), their influence on the world stage is marginal to the 21st Century libertarian notion of globalism (free-trade, tax havens, and a ‘race to the bottom’ tax competition between nations). Piketty argues that social democracies should form national alliances to regulate capital globally, as they have so successfully done domestically.
The social democracies were some of the most egalitarian societies the world has ever known, but this did not happen through mere cultural reasons or imagined ‘egalitarian exceptionalism’, but through clear policies linked to the unambiguous ideology of wanting to be egalitarian. This entailed political courage and enacting wealth distribution policies through high progressive taxation and high rates of inheritance tax. From the Second World War until 1980 was a prosperous, high-growth, high-innovation period. This was archived through maintaining egalitarianism via high progressive taxation, especially in the US (up to 75%), which is now the most inegalitarian western economy. Piketty’s point is that fiscal egalitarianism and innovation are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, the opposite may be the case. Globalism needs to move on a more egalitarian footing. This can only be done through alliances of progressive, egalitarian countries, something like a federal version of the EU (that presently only collect and distributes 1% of European GDP).
As Piketty argues, one of the significant reasons Western countries (particularly the US) became so in-egalitarian is shifting ideologies and voting patterns, especially on the left. Piketty uses post-election surveys to examine voter behaviour and discovered that there has been an almost complete reversal of voting patterns among a less-educated demographic. Since the 1980s, the less educated are more likely to vote Republican or Tory, and the more educated are more likely to vote Labour or Democrat. This shift mirrors the reduction of progressive taxation and the heightening of inequality in western democracies. The policies of the left (or what Piketty terms the Brahman left) are seen by the working classes as supporting high-education and high-salaries whilst neglecting working-class demands (which are often essentialised as ‘populism’). The pressure of global capital, the ‘race to the bottom’ in taxation competition, and a highly fractured polity have perhaps forced the hand of progressive parties.
In conclusion, Piketty argues that we need to get over communism, try egalitarianism again, and learn from the social democracies. The state does not have to own everything (the means of production). It can foster egalitarianism through taxation and fiscal justice, inheritance taxes (that prevent inter-generational wealth accumulation), and workers-representatives on company boards (as is the case in Germany and Nordic counties). One of his more interesting ideas is that there ought to be an explicit public inheritance or that every 25-year-old could receive a sum of 200 thousand euros to set them up in life at an early stage. This money would come from an inheritance tax on the enormous fortunes. The egalitarian ideology that justifies this is that wealth should be temporary and not accumulated over many generations (that could see us return to the nobility of pre-modern times).
I am fortunate enough to have read both of Piketty’s significant works, and the irony is, this type of scholarship is only possible in the 21st Century. The synthesis of quantitative data with a historical narrative on such scale using such techniques has all the hallmarks of emergent digital humanities (or ‘big reading’). Piketty has made much of his data available for further analysis, visualisation, and debate in the classroom. The book was released just before the global coronavirus pandemic, so perhaps there is a historical moment now, as there was directing proceeding the Second World War, where we have the chance to recalibrate ideologically and again move towards egalitarianism.
One of the few fun things permitted during the virus-restrictions in Australia was fat-motorcycling for exercise. Sure, you could not go far at first, but after a while, you could ride a lot further than your local supermarket or bottle shop.
This is a long, day-ride I did from Melbourne to the high-country, past Lake Mountain and Woods Point. It was a terrific ride; twelve hours of slow reflective, staccato riding, as no overnight rest-stays were permitted. Â During lock-down I am sure that my brain shrunk due to lack of stimulation, so getting out into the spacious mountains with tight-cornered, dirt roads lined with huge shedding eucalyptus trees, and lakes and rivers, and devoid of tin-cars was expansive (to say the least). It was freezing cold and the moody dirt road was all-consuming, but I developed a fresh perspective on this fabulous state beyond the deep, reductive ruts of the inner-city.
Riding up the Black Spur
This is one of the most popular motorcycle routes in Victoria; from Melbourne to Marysville through the Black Spur. There are usually lots of tin-cars, but today there were few.
Marysville to Woods Point Road
This road is pretty special, remote, mountainous, and again no cars. After the turnoff to Lake Mountain is gets pretty wild, and it is only sealed until the Warburton turn off
Marysville to Woods Point Road (dirt!)
This part of the journey was the most difficult, up over the top of a mountain on a narrow dirt road, through a dense forest. And I didn’t see anyone, apart from a couple of 4WDs from the hunters and fishers crew.
Woods Point is a pretty amazing place; remote, only accessible by dirt roads, and with a large pub called the Commercial Hotel.
The road to Jamieson passes next to the river and goes past the salubrious Kevington Hotel
Jamieson to Eildon road
The road from Jameson to Eildon traverses the Eildon national park; about one hundred kms of windy, meditational road free of the heady-clutter of Modern life (except for the moto, I like its clutter). This road was sealed all the way with slow, meandering, but disciplined corners. A very big day in a very big world where people are getting smaller and smaller.