Writing Speculative Fiction

“Jon knew that almost all of the work being submitted by students had in fact been produced by some sort of AI or other. If not the whole thing, then at least it had been co-written with natural language processing assistance.”

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

In late 2022 the journal Postdigital Science and Education issued a call for short stories and vignettes in the form of speculative fiction that look at education in the postdigital era.

I took the opportunity to write a short piece and was delighted that it was accepted. I was also really impressed with the editors and the amount of support and help provided with this journal.


Student Henri Kase sighed as she hit the ‘Submit’ button on the university’s Next Generation Leaning Management System (NGLMS). What a farce, she thought to herself. At least the new GPT-15 natural language processor meant that she did not have to waste too much time on these stupid and ultimately meaningless tasks. When will the education system finally wake up to the world in 2035? Who had the time to possibly read all those boring old eBooks and papers? Why read them anyway when a personal AI could give a neat summary of all the key points?

Henri stretched her back and neck, reaching for her VR headset so that she could get back to the CryptoSouk™ and start trading again. That was, after all, the activity that paid for her university fees and living expenses.

Curcher, M. The Pseudo Uni. Postdigit Sci Educ (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00384-3

To continue reading click here.

Having never written in this style before, it was an interesting experience and on I am tempted to explore again. I got the timeline completely wrong, when I drafted the first version ChatGPT had not been launched and I was looking more than 10 years into the future. It now seems as if this is about coming year.

This was written based on my experiences of trying the GPT-3 playground and was written before ChatGPT was launched and then really took off. The mainstream media and education seems to be in something of a frenzy over this, for understandable reasons.

I have been thinking of writing some posts about the impact of ChatGPT and other LLM technologies on education, but already there is probably a surplus of writing on this topic, with everyone and her dog having sort sort of “hot take” on what this might mean for education. For sure we do need to be talking seriously about this and at the same time we want to avoid making badly informed and poorly thought through knee jerk decisions. We teach in interesting times!

Also be sure to check out the many other excellent submissions to this call, including The Levity Bureau by my good friend Chris Smith.

Educational Trends in 2022

I always have such good intentions for writing and then events seem to get in the way and block the actual process of putting fingers to keyboard.  I have notebooks with all kinds of ideas for posts, but sadly they never seem to get from the notebook to these pages and so it is that months have passed since my last post.

In that period I have moved house and also run the first face to face intensive week for the degree program I co-lead since the fall of 2019.

So, now I am starting off again teaching a course that looks at the trends and innovations taking place in contemporary education.  It is disappointing to note that I also wrote a post on starting to teach this course two years ago in this blog and I did not manage to follow through with further posts!

I am very fortunate to be “teaching” (which is quite the wrong word) this to a diverse group of post-graduate students located across the world.  I am therefore very much looking forward to exploring the trends and innovations that are happening in their own contexts.

I therefore think it timely to reflect a little and comment on what I experience as the trends in my own context and how they impact teachers, students and the process of education. This is quite challenging to do without launching into a polemic rant that would probably do little except release the stress and frustration that has been building up, like the safety valve on a pressure cooker.  I do not want to be a curmudgeonly old man, seemingly complaining about everything.

This then is a serious attempt to write about the situation as I experience it.  The main trend that I have seen emerge over the last decade and then raise to prominence in the last two years is that of educational leaders becoming entirely focussed on finance and budget to the expense of all other aspects of education.

This is not to claim that the financial survival of an educational institution is of no importance, but rather a feeling that senior leadership seem to have lost sight of the actual reason that we exist at all, in other words the question of purpose.  This then gets transmitted down to middle managers by the metrics and KPI’s that are monitored and by which they are judged as successful or not.

Interestingly this then can also lead to contradictions and misalignments between what is tracked and measured and what the institution states are its strategic objectives and values.

This focus on income and costs, mean that staff and leaders lose sight of the actual reason that we exist, and all aspects of education become financialised.  The drivers for this are, in my opinion, political and economic, but also to some extent also just the result of poorly thought through strategies that result in unforeseen consequences.

None of this is new, Gert Biesta wrote an excellent book that touches on this topic in his “Good Education in an Age of Measurement” in 2011 and researchers like Stephen Ball have spent much of their career focussing on this.  Despite this, I am still experiencing this as an ’emerging trend’ because it now seems that we are in a time when education is a commodity, the process transactional and the only focus of those in charge is the spreadsheet of KPI’s.

The knock-on effects of this impact curriculum, pedagogy, processes, support and mental wellbeing and, of course, technology adoption.

In a future post I plan to unwrap this a bit more in terms of specific and concrete examples and how these play out in a contemporary public sector university focussed on professional and vocational education.

Becoming Postmodern?

Almost exactly a year ago, in early May 2021, just prior to my operation and having received my cancer diagnosis, I was out walking when I was struck by a number of thoughts relating to my own positionality with regard to modernity. I tried to capture these in very rough note format.

Time passes and because of all that was going on, I just forgot about them. Yesterday I came across the notes again while sorting out files and so I have decided to post them here. Apologies if they seem unstructured and poorly written and a bit random. I am also not sure exactly where I am now in relation to these thoughts and that is probably something that I will return to later. Here they are below the image, for what they are worth.

Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

These are random thoughts that came to me while out walking.  They are not in the form of a paper, there is not real structure and I have not organised them or referenced them or anything.  Like much of these ramblings, I am not sure that they will ever come to more than this setting down right now.

As I walked along it came to me that I was afflicted by another infection that has crept up on me over the years and come to dominate my being, but that until recently I had no name or framework and no way of really expressing the various views, opinion and feelings that I have.

In short, it came to me that I have in fact become infected with Postmodernism.  I will try and explain the reasons for my diagnosis but, as I say, the main realisation is that this is not new.  I have had these various thoughts and symptoms for some time, but I did not know what to call them or how to link them into a single contagion with multiple indications.

The most powerful indicator of my problem may well be the way that my belief in grand narratives have completely melted away over the last decade. (Lyotard) Perhaps this initially started as early the 1980’s when I began to have doubts about capitalism. However, I told myself that in fact although I did not agree with how capitalism was working, it was working to do exactly what it is meant to do, that is redistribute wealth and power to the small minority of capitalists while exploiting everyone else and the world at large.  I though that capitalism was actually very good and efficient at this, as I had seen first-hand, of which more later.  More recently though I have come to see that capitalism itself is really in trouble, that we really are now in the period of “late capitalism” and that it will collapse.  The pandemic has made many of its faults and fractures all too visible and these will split further despite the attempts of those in power to shore up the decaying structure.  This was of course predicted, and it is, at least by my logic, inevitable.  So, the first grand narrative, the first “ism” to feel my doubt was capitalism.

When capitalism fails, the capitalists all quickly become socialists expecting to tap into public funds to keep their systems and structures working.  They are after all, “Too big to fail” – we saw this the financial crisis with banks and financial institution, and we have seen it in the pandemic as well.  Of course, it is done in the name of “protecting jobs” and other such worthy causes.  These are the very same jobs that the capitalist would happily offshore, externalise or replace with technology as long as it reduced their costs and maximised their profits.  There is something that causes nausea to me to see a multimillionaire who was happy to reap these profits in good times, basically begging the public purse of the government for money, all the while relaxing in glorious luxury on a private island and not at all troubled by the harsh realities of the pandemic on normal people.  In fact, even more puke inducing is when the same normal people then hero worship the said multimillionaire as some kind of hero to be admire and to aspire to, (yes I am looking at you Mr. Branson) why is that?

So, having come to socialism, or at least socialism for the rich, I came to see though that my belief in socialism has also evaporated.  Another “ism” lost to me.  I know of course that the models of so called “actual real socialism” we have seen implemented prior to the collapses of the late 1980’s early 1990s’ were actually nothing of the sort, but that in a way proves my justification for no longer holding any belief in the narratives of socialist theory. As to communism itself – do I even need to elaborate now?

My time in the benign dictatorships of the Middle East started the process of dissolving my belief in democracy.  Not because I was not enamoured with being watched over by the loving kindness of absolute rulers, but the way that living in a different system enabled me to pull away some of the veil that covers our deference of democracy as a system.  For one thing, so many so-called democratic systems are anything but that.  I refer here to not only the systems where all opposition is either illegal, disallowed or executed, where there is only one name on the ballot paper and you had better vote for it, but also of the many two party, first past the post systems where the government may not be any sort of real representation of the voting preferences of the people.  Election and referendum results in the last decade has clearly shown some of the many flaws in these systems.

Further, what, in any real sense of the word, is a vote every four or five years a representation of a democratic process?  Indeed, we frequently mix up the word’s ‘election’ with ‘democracy’, using them almost interchangeably to mean the same thing.   All of this ignores the problems of democratic, economic and political literacy – of undermining education systems so that the electorate is simply unable to make democratic decisions and the process becomes one based on media soundbites and populist declarations that can be flipped on the basis of new data from a focus group and trending Twitter hashtags.  Having introduced education to this polemic, it is my intention to return to that topic later, given it has pretty well been my life’s work. To regroup my thinking, my claim is that I no longer believe in the grand narratives of capitalism, socialism or democracy.  Unfortunately, it gets worse though.  For I have realised that I no longer actually believe in progress itself!   Yes, it is true that we have tackled many of the problems, threats and improved the quality of life for so many human beings on the planet.  But at what cost?  Life on the planet itself – mass extinction, use of finite resources – we have a model of progress that depends upon continuous growth – this is not possible and also not sustainable, this is a myth, even in the digital world.  The pandemic is one example of the hyperobjects which threaten us, there will be new pandemics, the climate crisis is another hyperobject and we will see increasing use of violence and wars due to the complex geopolitical situations we face.

I think there is other evidence of my infection, such as religion, my views on money, banking, finance and economics, especially after reading some Baudrillard and his ideas on simulacra. So, this chain of thought might be continued.

Back to my blog

It has been a long while since I wrote here and much has happened in the world at large and in my own life, a lot of it not at all good, but here we are for now, still standing but sad for those many who are not.

At a global level we have seen the devastating affects of the global pandemic across all aspects of human life. This is not over yet, despite the deeply rooted desire that so many have to call time. We do not know what new variants will emerge and their characteristics and to not plan for worst case scenarios is just irresponsible. We should not fall into despair, we need to be hopeful but careful and prepared.

Democracy around the world is now in decline again, with the rise of more authoritarian regimes, populist leaders, and the rise of those who wish to roll back basic human rights.

And now we see war again in Europe and the threat of an escalation that may involve other countries and the appalling use of chemical and nuclear weapons. Many have found this shocking, we thought that we were beyond this and yet, here we are.

All of this is set against the all too visible impacts of a climate crisis that needs to be addressed with urgency. It is all to easy to feel overwhelmed with these multiple but interconnected crisis taking place at the macro level and their all too obvious impact on daily life. My plan is to write on all of the above topics to help myself better understand and deal with what is taking place.

On a personal level I dealt with being diagnosed with cancer last year. That is also an experience that I think has changed me and my priorities. I am fortunate enough to be in a country with an excellent public healthcare service and I am so sincerely grateful to all the wonderful staff in Finnish healthcare who treated me. I owe you my life. I have had surgery and treatment and, for now, I am fine and my health is improving physically and psychologically. I need to shout out my good friends and family who also were so vital in supporting me, especially those whose dark humour helped me through serious times. This I will also write about in the future posts. For now though, thank you – you know who you are.

What a time to be reemerging into the public sphere by writing. Though, as I state in the About section, I mostly write for myself. If you get something from reading it, then that is the cherry on top of the cream and icing, on top of the cake, on the plate, on the table.

Futures, Trends and Innovations in Education -First Thoughts

Education has a long history of trying to predict the future and I have no doubt this will continue. As I write this post there are countless projects trying to predict what “post pandemic” education, schools and universities will look like, all with various interest groups vying to push their own agendas.

I started writing this post several weeks ago, but the pressure of work meant that it did not get completed and published until now.

I recently started co-teaching an MBA course called Emerging Trends and Innovation in Education which has led to me reflecting on education and its relationship with time. It strikes me that the future is part of the raison d’être of education, for without a future of some kind there would seem to me to be little point to education. I think this holds true whether you define education and its purpose more broadly or you use a more narrowly defined characterisation that focuses on formal schooling. One aspect of the pandemic has been that it has made visible the many important functions and roles that teachers and formal schooling play in society. In my view is that this is a good thing for parents, employers and politicians to appreciate that the role of teachers and schools is not limited to the delivery of a curriculum.

Although there are those who lobby for tradition and the “maintenance of standards”, often harping back to some imagined golden age when things were better, it is still their desire to transmit this golden past into the future. So although backward looking, the overall aim is recreate this ‘glorious past’ in the future.

As I am often stating, the question then arises of whether we see the role of education as that of maintaining the status quo, of continuing the world as it now exists or, if the objective is to change the world in some way. If it is the latter, then a wider debate emerges of what that change looks like. It is for this reason that I often become frustrated with those who simply call to improve education and make it better. Better for whom and it what ways? Improve how and for what ends? Without clarity these are just empty platitudes. This is also one of the reasons why I believe that education is always political, not in a party political way, but in terms of whether the objective is stability or change and if change, then what type of change.

Postcard by French commercial artist Jean-Marc Côté in 1899 to commemorate the 1900 world’s fair, “Exposition Universelle,” in Paris. This is his vision of education in the year 2000. The postcards were later published in a book with Isaac Asimov in 1986.

Education has a long history of trying to predict the future and I have no doubt this will continue. As I write this post there are countless projects trying to predict what “post pandemic” education, schools and universities will look like, all with various interest groups vying to push their own agendas. Therefore educational leaders and teachers need to be aware and mindful of of those who are trying to create these futures and frame the narrative. This does not mean we should resist all change or be cynical, but it does mean engaging critically in the debate.

My clone, who lives in the cloud.

Photo by H Shaw on Unsplash

I have a clone and it lives in the cloud.  Many people have such a clone.

Scene 1.

I climb aboard the bus and swipe my bus pass.  It bleeps and the green glow of the circular light confirms I can board.  It’s 15:56 at Tenniskeskus, bus stop number 5043.  In a database somewhere in the cloud the link is made between me, my journey, my address, my payment details and contact information.  Here are all the details of my travel by public transport.  In my pocket the GPS of my phone and the mobile phone masts confirm the same journey.

Scene 2.

I am at the checkout of Prisma (a large supermarket chain, like Tesco’s or Walmart).  Each item scanned and totalled, the frequent customer card swiped and the data detailing what I have purchased, when and where is captured and in a database somewhere this logged and connected to my profile and payment details.

Scene 3.

I am on the internet using social media to stay in contact with friends and family.  As I scroll through my stream, neatly configured by my previous use so as to try to ensure my addiction and engagement, by a ‘blackboxed’ algorithm.  I slow to read a post, the cookies note that I slow and read, that I liked, or expressed some other emotional reaction.  Perhaps I comment or post a gif. Captured. To the cloud. Logged.  Tracked.

Scene 4.

A friend emails me on Gmail and I reply, we discuss health and world affairs and family matters.  The algorithms scan the mail, looking for the key words so as to build and develop the huge library of data being stored.  Sold to advertisers, part of the surveillance economy and the data exhaust of the ‘free’ use of these technologies.

Scene 5.

My writing for work is co-authored on Google Docs, collected and stored, then, when submitted and posted to databases, further logged and collected.  Details of who reads it, where they are located, captured and noted.

Scene 6.

Images of me are tagged by friends and family and attached to my profiles for work, bureaucratic and social purposes.  Facial recognition software recognises me.  Someone starts a meme posting photos with a ten-year age gap, so that the machine can learn how we change as we age.  Another friend does a quiz of social media to see what kind of dog they would be and the fact that they are my friend is collected and stored along with so much else.

I could go on and on, but the point is made.  There exists this huge, almost unimaginable set of data points about us, our choices, our behaviours and opinions.  What we read, what we borrow from the library, who we connect with, our friends and family.  Our smart TV captures what we watch and when.  What we write and post and how we react.  Everything we have ever searched for on Google – think about that!   That data might know me better than I know myself – or want to know and admit to myself.

Some of this data is already connected and aggregated. As a thought experiment, imagine if it were fully and seamlessly integrated.  That the data was then plugged into bots and tools that would continue to post, comment, email, write and teach my online classes.  Using machine learning and AI to replicate my style, my ticks and errors, my humour and cynicism. To generate “uncanny valley” pictures of me, perhaps doing new things, in new places with people I have never met, or perhaps even ones with people who do not actually exist in the real world.   How long would it be able to fool people?   It could even virtually duplicate journeys I did not actually make.  It could post and reply to WhatsApp and text messages.  

For everyone except those who see me face to face, my data clone would, I believe, pass the Turing test pretty well.   My data clone lives in the cloud and knows so much more about me than I can remember about myself and about my life.  Details of key dates and anniversaries and so much more.   Can you recall in detail what you bought at the store on February 23rd, 2018 at 16:43?  It is there, the data is there, logged and tracked.

A clone who lives in the cloud, a ghost in the machine?  I am not the first to consider these ideas.  There is a science fiction podcast called LifeAfter that consideres how a digitally created loved one might serve as a comfort for the bereaved.  There have also been those who seek to deliberately create the quantified self, but I think most have us have created clones without being aware that we were doing it.

I wonder how my clone is today, is it well, did it log and record this post and add it to the datafile?  Was it me that wrote this, or my clone?