Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Fri, 01 Apr 2022

Anti-prosperity in the UK, part one

(I thought about calling this “Never Mind the Bullshit Jobs”... but that would apply better to a future part.)

Various rhetoric about government-funded academic research here in the UK seem increasingly to use the word “prosperity”. For me this has become a major red flag. Despite the positive-sounding line that “prosperity” exists as an easily recognised and obviously good thing, it is often invoked by interested parties attempting to whitewash issues that in fact are subtle and, usually, deeply political. In many cases, claims of “prosperity” are used as cover for outright harm.

(This post will be overtly political. However, I don't believe very much in it is controversial.)

For examples of anti-prosperity, we only have to look at ad-funded social media “prospering” from monetised hatred and insecurity, or ad-funded cloud computing “prospering” from mass surveillance. Alternatively we can look at the countless corporations “prospering” from the constant private and public investment in unsustainable high-energy technologies, from electric cars to data centres to cryptocurrency, deliberately disregarding both the carbon cost and the other emitted pollutants (whether particulates, carbon or coinbros) while starving out the adoption of obvious low-energy alternatives. We could look more generally at the epidemic of “crap automation” afflicting our society—lower-cost but fundamentally less effective “solutions” to all manner of formerly human service roles, most obviously in customer services and retail, but nowadays increasingly in knowledge work (transcription, translation, tuition) and even in healthcare. All of these bring opportunities to make profit for someone, but also to lose value for people at large. Nobody in their right mind would call that “prosperity”, yet that is what is too often meant. As Illich argued, our very definitions of progress are controlled by a select few—whom he called “self-certifying professional elites”—who are very often engaged or invested in programmes of work that once arguably did good, but have shifted towards doing outright harm.

Public and private harm

When public harm is profitable to private interests, we should expect those private interests to pursue it. What we should also expect is that academics and government—those who have the public interest in mind—to act against that harm. Instead, today's private harmdoers are helped on their way, by complicit academics and wrong-headed government initiatives that have created an extreme dependency on external funding and extreme contingency of that funding on indicators of “success” defined as benefit to private interests.

Here in the UK, recent governments have worked hard to more closely align public fundability of university research (whether by project grants or REF-dependent block grants) with benefit to private-sector industry. This is called “partnership” and “impact”. In the other direction, private harmdoers have worked hard to embed their interests and attitudes within universities. This is called “engagement” and “collaboration”. In the middle of all this we find the hapless individual academic. The issue is both institutional and individual. It's easy to criticise institutions, who certainly try very hard to portray this state of affairs as “the system” and therefore “the job”, in which academics are duty-bound to do whatever it takes to bring in money. Our institutions are so desperately, increasingly hungry for outside money. Promotion and other rewards are offered for “impact” and “engagement” but, for some reason, never for public good as an end in itself. Instead, “good for some business” and “good for the public” are assumed equivalent.

While the incentives on academics have never been more toxic or less conducive to good societal outcomes, academic pushback on these bad incentives has been about as effective as a hard-boiled frog. Once upon a time, one might have expected academics to speak out en masse. Somehow, individuals have become rotten too. To borrow two phrases from Jeff Schmidt's sizzling polemic “Disciplined Minds”, increasingly it is the individuals who have “assignable curiosity” and a capacity for “alienated labour” who can succeed in the academic system. If you actually care about something, the system is destined to frustrate and contain you. The changes of recent decades—to a more bureaucratic, managerial university system in general, and a more short-term impact-centric research system specifically—could hardly have been tailor-made any better to further this effect.

Cosiness and carbon

Let's consider perhaps the most glaring example, of how cosiness with the fossil fuel industry continues to be rife within our universities. While I was a PhD student at Christ's College, Cambridge, a cheerful man named Reg introduced himself to me as the new Bursar, explaining that he had recently retired from British Petroleum (BP). Here was a company that for decades had been roundly thought of as comprising jolly good trustworthy establishment sorts who were bringing “prosperity” to the great British nation. More recently it is better known for as criminally liable for its core business of bringing about the climate disaster, as well as its criminal liability for the largest marine oil spill in history. It does so while frantically trying to greenwash its image by touting a tiny fraction of its subsidiary activities. In 2018 the Christ's College Council voted against terminating the College's investments in fossil fuel companies, despite what was at the time conspicuous lack of coherent argument supporting that decision. A little earlier, still in Cambridge, in a debate about university investments, an academic funded by the fossil fuels industry stood up and pronounced these industry players as “the good guys” of decarbonisation. That claim was not plausible at the time, and even in a few short years, it hasn't aged well.

Although implausible, I don't doubt that these beliefs were well-meant. Let's say your research is about combustion efficiency. Great! If it succeeds, we can burn less fuel per unit useful energy. Isn't that helping? And if BP (or whoever) is funding this, maybe they're doing good? It's easy to rationalise yourself into believing this sort of argument, particularly if your career, wealth and standing all benefit from it. Unfortunately it doesn't stand up to systems thinking. It's well accepted that humanity's goal now must be to keep as much carbon in the ground as possible. Increasing the efficiency of a destructive technology has many indirect effects that work against that. It is likely to prolong these technologies' lifespans, maintain for longer their positions in the market, give fodder to lobbyists' efforts to stall government regulation, bolster the fortunes of companies invested in pursuing them further, excuse and enable superficial non-fixes (hydrogen to replace natural gas, anyone? how much of that is really going to come from green electrolysis?), slow the writedown of fossil-fuel plant investments (anyone heard of stranded assets?) hence lengthen the operating life of these plants and practices, and ultimately lead to more of fossil fuel being burnt. And that is no accident; it is what these companies want because it ekes out more returns from the money they have sunk into existing activities, plant and expertise. It benefits their shareholders, to humanity's detriment.

Academics less reliant on funding from or “partnership with” giant corporates might be more awake to all this. Put differently, externally dependent research programmes are inherently corruptible. Thanks to prevailing bastardised notions of “impact” and “engagement”, even publicly-funded “academic” programmes are now largely in that category. If what we call “industry” were on balance doing good in the world, this might be not so bad. But the consumption-based industries underpinning modern society have mostly long since crossed Illich's second threshold: they are doing active harm, while passing it off as progress. Incumbent corporates' fingers reach into most or all influential institutions of the state. They spend good money on appearing like the good guys, and for them it is well worth it.

Capture and complicity

Quite often I can ascribe academic complicity to benign naivety... but not always. One non-executive director of BP is a certain Ann Dowling, a professor of considerable standing at Cambridge, who has also happened to wield much influence over funding nationally, as chair of one of the four REF panels in 2014. Besides her, many other academics in Cambridge have deep relationships with BP and similar companies. (The same is likely true in many leading institutions; I'm picking on Cambridge because I know it the best.) Not so coincidentally, divestment from fossil fuels was vehemently resisted by much of that university's establishment in the face of increasing grass-roots pressure during (especially) 2016–18. The idea that “fossil fuels are our trusty financial friend” was heavily ingrained, not just as an ambient belief but by concrete financial interests, both institutional and personal. These were enough to bring out dirty tricks and “arguments” that would shame any free-thinking academic. As these companies know, thinking is more easily captured than carbon.

This was never more blindingly apparent than in 2018 at the issue of a non-report by a so-called “Divestment Working Group”. The group was ostensibly answering a grass-roots call for the university to assess the benefits of divestment. However, it was actually given vague and irrelevant terms of reference and delivered a similarly vague and irrelevant report. Later, in 2019 it was reported in The Guardian that professors Simon Redfern and John Shakeshaft, both members of the group, failed to declare an apparent conflict of interest from their role in processes around accepting funding from BP. The linked “conflict of interest register” (not public) indeed does not mention such interests. Perhaps dealing with BP money was so routine for them that it slipped their minds. Perhaps there is another explanation. But either way, this situation represents a problem. Even crediting those involved the best will in the world, it does not seem plausible that these financial relationships were fully isolated from other decision-making.

The same document also reveals that the chair of that working group, Athene Donald, was decent enough to declare that she personally held stock in three well-known fossil fuel companies. (The holdings are described as “small”... but as any good physicist knows, small is relative.) It says a lot that this wasn't enough to red-flag her as chair; one doesn't have to be too cynical to suspect it may even have green-flagged her, given the evidently low risk of her putting her mouth where her money wasn't. The Vice-Chancellor at the time the working group was formed, Leszek Borysiewicz, had told me in person that he opposed divestment because his overriding concern was the apparent hypocrisy of holding research collaborations with companies like BP in whom the university would meanwhile be declining to invest. The same Guardian article quotes a university spokesperson stating falsely to the press that the working group's recommendation of (essentially) inaction was “backed by the full Council”. In fact, a note of dissent had been submitted by two academic Council members in addition to the two student members. The relevant press release shamelessly attempted to bury the academic dissent under an obscure heading that appeared to conflate it with the student voice. Perhaps, again being charitable, the spokesperson simply absent-mindedly overlooked the dissent; “of course” there was consensus that supporting our fossil fuels multinationals, the good guys who so generously fund our research, is the path to prosperity. Again, that's charitable in the extreme, but it's a problem even if accurate.

Cash and (career) currency

It's true that some progress has since been made on the fossil fuel issue. Both Christ's and the University of Cambridge have since decided to divest from fossil fuels, at least ostensibly and perhaps also for real. But the rot still goes deep. From where I've been standing, this change does not appear driven by any sudden re-evaluation of the nature of prosperity. It was pursued only once not doing so became toxic for PR in general and for alumni relations in particular—thanks in part to press coverage, as seen above. In short, the university acted to safeguard its own income stream, rather than out of public-spiritedness.

This isn't about fossil fuels per se. There is nothing to stop complacent institutions blundering into blinkered support for the next industries of anti-prosperity, despite their stated do-gooder aspirations. In fact this is already happening. My own field is not short of examples: where once Google or even Facebook might have seemed non-evil dynamic young collaborators, now their business models and operating practices are obviously beyond redemption, yet in the intervening time, their hooks have become deeply embedded in our universities. As more and more of academics' jobs involve fundraising for those self-same jobs, universities' resistance to blunders and infiltration can only decline. Academics' eyes light up the moment corporates dangle what, for them, are quite puny sums but to an academic are career currency. Career success selects for those who have the least compunction.

Change?

What can reverse this dynamic? Currently I don't see any tendency for self-correction—neither in general nor even (unbelievably) in the specific case of fossil fuels. In a September 2021 departmental away afternoon here at King's, we were told that the best kind of impact is financially quantifiable impact, and (with a straight face) a really great success story at King's recently was enabling Schlumberger to drill for oil and gas in quantifiably more affordable ways. This is the core activity of the fossil fuel industry—not even its greenwashed fringe. We were so proud to be directly helping with the out-and-out dirty work.

Here in Cambridge, where I live, Schlumberger is also very present, and there is a nascent campaign to get the university (here) to dissociate from it. However, reactive single-issue campaigning is not the answer. For a few headline issues, it might bear some fruit, as it did with the student campaign groups who tirelessly pushed the debate on the fossil fuel issue. (Many staff members did so too, of whom I would single out Jeremy Caddick for his heroic tenacity.) However, such campaigning takes an awfully long time to get results even in the best case. For many issues, campaigning just never reaches critical mass.

Since so many individual academics evidently can't be relied on to shun anti-prosperity as a matter of course, the only hope is if we can somehow change the incentives in a more blanket fashion. If we are to talk about real prosperity, and public research funds' ability to deliver it, we need to ask: where's our incentive for not pursuing anti-prosperity? Hatred, surveillance, fossil fuels, high-energy technologies in general (once again following Illich): how can we ramp all of these down to zero? Where are the institutional and governmental policies offering reward for work on doing so? Where are the penalties for work that goes the other way? Given the corrupt state of both government and universities, I'd even settle for a weaker version: how can we not be penalised for working on real prosperity? In a regime where big-number “financially quantifiable impact” and funding contributions from “industry partnerships” are given so much weight, there is a de facto penalty against work that isn't assisting the big-money corporates. Yet such work is exactly what real prosperity must involve. If any institution should be incentivised against anti-prosperity, surely universities should. Yet all the incentives point completely the wrong way.

Relatively small tweaks could easily help with this. For example, benefit to charities or other not-for-profit partners could be favoured over private-sector “impact”, and such partnerships could explicitly be promoted. Currently, they are latently discouraged since the usual word “industry” does not even bring these options to mind, and because financially quantified “impact” numbers are inevitably either smaller or unavailable. Conservative governments are unlikely to deliver funding schemes that reward these, but it doesn't stop local efforts to prioritise them. I suggested above that public good—as distinct from “engagement” or “impact”—could easily be an explicit criterion in promotion, for example. Local funding pots could also prioritise public good. Small financial incentives can exert a large sway on academics. Unfortunately, as we saw above, the higher strata of universities have been captured by a particularly dangerous gaggle who do harm while earnestly believing they are doing good. Combined with institutional inertia—fossil fuels are still seen as a trusty financial friend—and the chance of reform in local institutional systems and processes seems negligible.

So ends my first rant about anti-prosperity. By picking on fossil fuels, I've chosen a headline issue that is an easy target. With its being rather outside my area, I could perhaps be accused of missing nuance. In one or more future posts I'll cover two further anti-prosperity issues rather more local to computer science. One is how the popular notion of “automation” (sorry, I mean “AI”) is being missold based on industrial notions of automation that ignore issues of human value and quality. The other is how aggregation has acquired an overwhelming mindshare, to the point that even bright people forget that or “scale-up” is not the only and not even the only technical means of creating human value in industry (indeed, it readily destroys value). All three issues are related, in that the same small minorities benefit from all three, and each reinforces the others. It is a vicious cycle which universities should be countering, not amplifying.

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